The pretty sister gave out the rhymes, and we all set to work. The ugly sister finished first, and when the verses came to be read, hers were pronounced the best. I was amazed, and made an improvisation on her skill, which I gave her in writing. In five minutes she returned it to me; the rhymes were the same, but the turn of the thought was much more elegant. I was still more surprised, and took the liberty of asking her name, and found her to be the famous "Shepherdess," Maria Fortuna, of the Academy of Arcadians.
I had read the beautiful stanzas she had written in praise of Metastasio. I told her so, and she brought me the poet's reply in manuscript.
Full of admiration, I addressed myself to her alone, and all her plainness vanished.
I had had an agreeable conversation with the marchioness in the morning, but in the evening I was literally in an ecstacy.
I kept on talking of Fortuna, and asked the abbe if she could improvise in the manner of Gorilla. He replied that she had wished to do so, but that he had disallowed it, and he easily convinced me that this improvisation would have been the ruin of her fine talent. I also agreed with him when he said that he had warned her against making impromptus too frequently, as such hasty verses are apt to sacrifice wit to rhyme.
The honour in which improvisation was held amongst the Greeks and Romans is due to the fact that Greek and Latin verse is not under the dominion of rhyme. But as it was, the great poets seldom improvised; knowing as they did that such verses were usually feeble and common-place.
Horace often passed a whole night searching for a vigorous and elegantly- turned phrase. When he had succeeded, he wrote the words on the wall and went to sleep. The lines which cost him nothing are generally prosaic; they may easily be picked out in his epistles.
The amiable and learned Abbe Chiaccheri, confessed to me that he was in love with his pupil, despite her ugliness. He added that he had never expected it when he began to teach her to make verses.
"I can't understand that," I said, "sublata lucerna', you know."
"Not at all," said he, with a laugh, "I love her for her face, since it is inseperable from my idea of her."
A Tuscan has certainly more poetic riches at his disposal than any other Italian, and the Siennese dialect is sweeter and more energetic than that of Florence, though the latter claims the title of the classic dialect, on account of its purity. This purity, together with its richness and copiousness of diction it owes to the academy. From the great richness of Italian we can treat a subject with far greater eloquence than a French writer; Italian abounds in synonyms, while French is lamentably deficient in this respect. Voltaire used to laugh at those who said that the French tongue could not be charged with poverty, as it had all that was necessary. A man may have necessaries, and yet be poor. The obstinacy of the French academy in refusing to adopt foreign words skews more pride than wisdom. This exclusiveness cannot last.
As for us we take words from all languages and all sources, provided they suit the genius of our own language. We love to see our riches increase; we even steal from the poor, but to do so is the general characteristic of the rich.
The amiable marchioness gave us a delicious dinner in a house designed by Palladio. Chiaccheri had warned me to say nothing about the Shepherdess Fortuna; but at dinner she told him she was sure he had taken me to her house. He had not the face to deny it, and I did not conceal the pleasure I had received.
"Stratico admires Fortuna," said the marchioness, "and I confess that her writings have great merit, but it's a pity one cannot go to the house, except under an incognito."
"Why not?" I asked, in some astonishment.
"What!" said she to the abbe, "you did not tell him whose house it is?"
"I did not think it necessary, her father and mother rarely shew themselves."
"Well, it's of no consequence."
"But what is her father?" I asked, "the hangman, perhaps?"
"Worse, he's the 'bargello', and you must see that a stranger cannot be received into good society here if he goes to such places as that."
Chiaccheri looked rather hurt, and I thought it my duty to say that I would not go there again till the eve of my departure.