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Folk Tales in the Maremma 12/10/2011

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c. 1910

A story told to the writer by a charcoal burner in the great chestnut forest, which covers the lower slopes of Monte Amiata on the border of the Tuscan Maremma, has no doubt a Pagan derivation. In this forest far from railways the Barocciaio or carrier is an important person and the hero of many adventures. A barocciaio, travelling by night, came to a spot where his mules would go no further; looking around he saw an old man, who mounted the baroccio (country cart) and immediately the mules went forward. Presently they came to a church, when the old man said: ‘Go in and ring the church bells.’ The barocciaio answered: ‘Buon’ vecchio, the church tower will be shut at this hour.’ The old man answered: ‘Do as I say.’ So the barocciaio got off the cart and went to the church, and to his surprise the door of the tower was open, but in the doorway stood a great lady in a beautiful mantle with a child in her arms. She asked: ‘What do you want to do?’ and the barocciaio said: ‘Ring the bells’; and she asked: ‘Who told you to ring them’; he answered: ‘The old man’; and she answered: ‘If you had obeyed him, it would have rained fire upon the earth for three days.’ So he went back to the old man, who asked why he had not rung the bells. He told him what the lady had said, whereupon the old man cried ‘Maria! Maria! You are the stronger’ and disappeared.

The Tale of Teresinella 22/03/2011

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c. 1915 appears in a collection of Mrs Hugh Fraser

It was during the reign of the last Grand Duke of Tuscany that there occurred in connection with the theatre at Florence, one of the most strangely interesting little human dramas of which I have ever heard. It is the story of a young girl who captivated the Florentines for a brief season by her incomparable beauty and talent as a dancer – and then, all at once, just as the world of European theatre-goers was at its keenest to see the successor of Vestris and Taglioni, she disappeared from the stage and was never seen on it again. Let us call her Teresinella Bandiera.

Some sixty years ago, there was living in Florence a young man of the name of Rossani, who was pursuing a course of studies in jurisprudence at the university there. Unlike the greater number of his fellow students, Rossani was not given to sociability or to amusing himself in his spare moments at the cafes and places of entertainment; he neither made friendships nor was ever known to have lost his heart to any woman, however charming and attractive – as was the custom of his more frivolous companions. His work was, apparently, all in all to the studious Rossani whom no charge of misanthropy could induce to change his way of life against a more lighthearted one. Melancholy, solitary and diligent, he went his lonely road without permitting himself the slightest deviation from it in spite of the chaff and rallying of his comrades – until one fateful evening about the time of the Crimean War when he suffered himself to be persuaded, much against his will, to form one of a party to the theatre. For such had been the pressure put upon him by the other students, and so impressed had he been by their extravagant enthusiasm for an unknown dancer, that he had no longer found it possible to resist their entreaties that he would accompany them to see her – ‘Just for this once’, as they put it to him – ‘in order that you may really know what it is to live. After that, when you have seen our Teresinella, you may go back to your musty lawbooks if you like. But we do not believe that you will. At any rate, it will do you good to broaden your mind a little by seeing her dance, Rossani nostro!’ And so, accepting their invitation as a challenge to him, Rossani consented and went.

From that hour he was a changed man. So soon as the curtain rose upon the scene of the ballet, a storm of applause greeted the appearance of the premiere danseuse, a radiant blushing slip of a girl who bowed again and again with evident impatience to begin her dancing, in response to the tumult of acclamations that were showered upon her. One can picture the scene; the glowing stage and twilit body of the theatre with its avidly enthusiastic occupants of whom even those in the box reserved for the Grand Duke – a typical ‘John Bull’ of a man to look at in spite of his snowy Austrian tunic and the flambant Austrian insignia of the Golden Fleece that hung below his military stock – were clapping their hands and cheering like school-children at a fair; and then the gradual hush through which the first bars of the music began to rise up into the murky dome overhead. And, as the amazing perfection of the principal dancer’s loveliness became borne in upon Rossani’s awakening appreciation of things beautiful, some new and hitherto hidden emotions stirred to life in him, making him draw in his breath sharply and shade his eyes an instant with his hand, as though they were dazzled by something.

Saving for that one movement, he did not stir or speak at all during the whole time that Teresinella was on the stage; and when the ballet was over, and she had withdrawn after refusing the last of countless recalls, Rossani went out silently from the theatre into the night, his soul stirred to its very depths. To his fellow students, on their inquiring of him how he had enjoyed the dancing of Teresinella, he vouchsafed scarcely more than a few words to the effect that, ‘Yes, he had liked it – it had been very interesting’, and so forth. And that was all. But, thenceforth, his leisure time was devoted to making inquiries regarding the girl whose wondrous comeliness had changed his whole interior life, imparting to it a new warmth and lustre. Even now, however, he did not attempt to make her acquaintance; but, night after night he might be seen sitting in his seat in the theatre, devouring every movement with his eager eyes which seemed blind to every other object, until it was patent to all that his entire being was bound up with hers. It was little enough that he had been able to learn about her; but that little sufficed to inflame him with compassion and indignation.

Barely sixteen years of age, Teresinella was the daughter of an unprincipled and heartless mother whose greed for gain had driven the girl upon the boards with the iniquitous intention of selling her beauty to the highest bidder – from which hideous fate Rossani was determined, come what might, to deliver her at all costs. How he was to do this, he was not quite sure, for in the effecting of his purpose he would have to reckon not only with the mercenary mother’s guarding of her from all influences for good, but, also, with the delight of Teresinella herself in her own triumphs as a dancer and her own powers of subjugating her audience. For he could see that her success was rapidly becoming the dominating factor in the girl’s life, so that she was growing to depend upon the stimulant of it, much as a drunkard craves for that of liquor; and from this peril Rossani was resolved to save her. Finally, after much thinking, he saw the only way of effecting his purpose, and made up his mind to follow it.

The theatrical season was drawing to a close with which Teresinella’s stay in Florence would also come to an end, and she would go elsewhere – to London or Paris or Vienna – to increase her fame before a larger and wealthier public. Now or never was the time for Rossani, her true lover, to carry out his purpose of rescuing his beloved from the perils that awaited her. Such, indeed, had been her conquest of Florence that it was arranged that the city should show its recognition of her merits by according her a ‘benefit’ night at the State Theatre itself; an event at which, needless to say, every university student who could afford it (and many, doubtless who could not) was bent upon assisting.

According to the Italian custom, moreover, of those days, they proposed to present Teresinella with some complimentary verses in honour of the occasion; of which verses copies were to be distributed among the audience during the ballet. Here was the opportunity for which Rossani had been waiting. ‘I will see to it; you may safely leave it all to me’, he assured his friends – by now he had become human enough to have friendships with others of the students – and forthwith proceeded to busy himself with the composition of the sonnet and the arrangements for printing it.

To no one, though, would he confide the secret of his verses which, as he said, was to be a little surprise for them all – and so they let him do as he wished, rather enjoying the little mystification than otherwise. Eventually, the benefit night arrived, and with it a more complete triumph than any she had yet scored, for Teresinella. Panting ever so slightly with her exertions she confronted the semi-delirious audience, overwhelmed with applause and with presents of flowers and jewellery. And, all the while that she was dancing her last dance in Florence, Rossani, was making the round of the theatre, bearing a huge pile of printed leaflets which he distributed to every one in turn, going from box to box and through all the seats. As he went, and the public bent in curiosity over the verses which he had left with them, there arose from all parts of the house a loud whisper of excitement and astonishment.

And then, at last, a special copy of Rossani’s verses, luxuriously printed and bound in satin, was handed up by him to the radiant girl herself. As she took them from him, their eyes met, and Teresinella lowered her own to the leaflet that she had received from him, and there fell a hush upon all those present. Suddenly, as she perused the verses that Rossani had put into her hand, all the flush of happiness in the girl’s face went out of it, leaving her deathly white. ‘I will never dance again!’ she cried. ‘Never – never!’  – with which she tore the leaflet across and threw the pieces to the ground. And she kept her word. Nothing could ever again induce her to enter a theatre, or to dance so much as a single step. Nor was it long before those she had captivated by her dancing learned that she had retired from the world into a life of seclusion there to turn her mind to higher things.

As to the verses – or, rather, the verse – which changed her life, here it is for the benefit of the reader:

‘Dimmi che cosa è Re

Di reo due terzi egli è.

Anzi, per dirti il vero,

La differenza è Zero’ [Tell me what thing is a king (re), he is two thirds of a criminal (reo), in fact, to tell the truth they are one and the same thing]

But of Rossani’s life after that night when he succeeded in rescuing Teresinella Bandiera from the pitfalls which her own talent and her mother’s cupidity were possibly preparing for her, I know nothing. Whatever it may have been, though, I cannot think that he had lived quite in vain.