The Rumour-monger

stpetersSnippets 139.  In 1854 the American Rev. George Foxcroft Haskins went on a tour of Europe and one of the highlights of his trip was an extended stay in Rome.  Although he had a wonderful time there, he was disappointed to  discover tour guides spreading rumours about the Pope and the Vatican.  The following quote is taken from Travels in England, France, Italy and Ireland, published in 1856.

There is a class of men in Italy called Cicerones. Their office is to accompany tourists from place to place, to point out all objects worthy of notice, to expatiate on the merits of all sorts of things, and to make as much money as they can. The money making I have put last, but with them it is always the first, and the most important thing. Truth, in their estimation, unless it pays, is a useless drug. Falsehood, if lucrative, is a priceless treasure. They are a race shrewd, intelligent, and well drilled. They are unsurpassed in their knowledge of character…

Mr. B., an intelligent and wealthy Protestant gentleman, arrived in Rome during my residence in the Eternal City, whose acquaintance I had the honor and pleasure of making at that time, and who was my travelling companion and intimate friend during many of my subsequent journeys. He went to Rome for the purpose of examining for himself the religious and literary institutions of Rome. One day he was invited by a party of American tourists to join them in a visit to some of the charitable institutions of the city.

They employed a very celebrated cicerone, named Pietro Nobili — the same, I believe, who has officiated in the same capacity for some of our most distinguished tourists. He was recommended to them as a very intelligent man, and a liberal Catholic. Accordingly, the gentlemen of the party plied him very freely with questions — holding their note books in their hands, ready to record his. answers. Every individual of the party, except Pietro Nobili, was a Protestant, and Pietro Nobili knew it. Accordingly, he served up an entertainment suited to his knowledge of Protestant appetites.

He began by abusing the clergy in general — lamenting in most touching language their gross ignorance and shameless immoralities — at the same time assuring his gaping auditors that good men might undoubtedly be found among them — excusing their conduct, at the same time, as well as he could — and pronouncing an eloquent dissertation on the celibacy of the clergy, and the wealth, hospitality, and good cheer of the monks.

“But the cardinals?” asked one of the party; “surely they are not so ignorant or immoral?”

“O, no — by no means. The cardinals are learned men, and very accomplished in their manners. And why? They are princes, and roll in wealth. They grow rich, however, at the expense of the poor; and that accounts for the multitude of beggars that throng our streets and churches.”

“But at least they are moral in their lives?”

“Yes, certainly. That is, as far as it is necessary that they should be. Of course, they are but men, and must —”

“But you do not mean that they marry?”

“No — but you see that large building opposite.” (It was the great hospital of St. Michele, for the education of hundreds of poor children, and for the relief of adult paupers.) “Well, that is an immense seraglio — magnificently fitted up — and it is visited by none but cardinals.”

“But does not such an institution give scandal to good Catholics?”

“O, no; we become accustomed to such things, and only smile now and then.” (Here followed a great flourish of note books and pencils.)

“And the pope — is he a good man?”

“Yes, a most holy old man. We all love the Holy Father. He is a man, of course, and has his little weaknesses.” (A great rustling of leaves among the note books.) “He has a high regard for the fair sex — and” (lowering his voice) “it is said, indeed —”

Mr. B. had been for some time boiling with indignation at this fellow’s impudence and imposture, and he could contain no longer: —

“Look you here, my friend. You may stop that nonsense. You have given us your opinion of the priests and cardinals, and you knew full well that you were uttering falsehoods. I will now give you my opinion of you; and I know that I speak truth. You are an infamous liar and an unprincipled villain, and I should serve you right if I denounced you to the authorities of Rome. For whom do you take us? Is it for Protestants? So we are. But dare you thence conclude that we are fools and knaves like yourself, and the contemptible class to which you belong? Gentlemen, we are acquiring ignorance, and not knowledge, from the services of this wretch. For my part, I came to Rome to obtain knowledge, and I want no such teacher as this.”

The whole party, when they saw the miserable poltroon thunderstruck, pale, trembling, and silent, were satisfied that Mr. B. was in the right, and they applauded his zeal. The fellow was forthwith discharged, and never again employed by any of that party.

The term “cicerone” presumably has its origins in the name of Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was of course a brilliant orator.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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