THE ITALIAN, OR, THE Confessional of the Black Penitents.
ABOUT the year 1764, some English travellers in Italy, during one of their excursions in the envi|rons of Naples, happened to stop before the portico of the Santa Maria del Pianto, a church belonging to a very ancient convent of the order of the Black Penitents. The magnificence of this portico, though impaired by time, excited so much admiration, that the travellers were curious to survey the structure to which it belonged, and with this intention they as|cended the marble steps that led to it.
Within the shade of the portico, a person with fol|ded arms, and eyes directed towards the ground, was pacing behind the pillars the whole extent of the pave|ment, and was apparently so engaged by his own thoughts, as not to observe that strangers were ap|proaching. He turned, however, suddenly, as if star|tled by the sound of steps, and then, without further pausing, glided to a door that opened into the church, and disappeared.
There was something too extraordinary in the fi|gure of this man, and too singular in his conduct, to to pass unnoticed by the visitors. He was of a tall thin figure, bending forward from the shoulders; of a sallow complexion, and harsh features, and had an Page iv eye, which, as it looked up from the cloak that Muf|fled the lower part of his countenance, seemed ex|pressive of uncommon ferocity.
The travellers on entering the church, looked round for the stranger, who had passed thither before them, but he was no where to be seen, and, through all the shade of the long aisles, only one other person appear|ed. This was a friar of the adjoining convent, who sometimes pointed out to strangers the objects in the church, which were most worthy of attention, and who now, with this design, approached the party that had just entered.
The interior of this edifice had nothing of the shewy ornament and general splendor, which distinguish the churches of Italy, and particularly those of Naples; but it exhibited a simplicity and grandeur of design, considerably more interesting to persons of taste, and a solemnity of light and shade much more suitable to promote the sublime elevation of devotion.
When the party had viewed the different shrines and whatever had been judged worthy of observation, and were returning through an obscure aisle towards the portico, they perceived the person who had ap|peared upon the steps, passing towards a confessional on the left, and, as he entered it, one of the party pointed him out to the friar, and enquired who he was; the friar turning to look after him, did not immedi|ately reply, but on the question being repeated, he inclined his head, as in a kind of obeisance, and calm|ly replied, "he is an assassin."
"An assassin!" exclaimed one of the Englishmen; "an assassin, and at liberty!"
An Italian gentleman, who was of the party, smil|ed at the astonishment of his friend.
"He has sought sanctuary here," replied the fri|ar; "within those walls he may not be hurt."
"Do your altars, then, protect the murderer?" said the Englishman.
Page v "He could find shelter no where else," answered the friar meekly.
"This is astonishing!" said the Englishman, "of what avail are your laws, if the most atrocious cri|minal may thus find shelter from them? But how does he contrive to exist here! He is, at least, in dan|ger of being starved?"
"Pardon me," replied the friar; "there are al|ways people willing to assist those, who cannot assist themselves; and as the criminal may not leave the church in search of food, they bring it to him here."
"Is this possible?" said the Englishman, turn|ing to his Italian friend.
"Why, the poor wretch must not starve," repli|ed the friend; "which he inevitably would do, if food were not brought to him! But have you never since your arrival in Italy, happened to see a person in the situation of this man? It is by no means an uncommon one.',
"Never!" answered the Englishman, "and I can scarcely credit what I see now!"
"Why, my friend," observed the Italian, "if we were to shew no mercy to such unfortunate persons, assassinations are so frequent, that our cities would be half depopulated."
In notice of this profound remark, the English|man could only gravely bow.
'But observe yonder confessional,' added the Italian, "that beyond the pillars on the left of the aisle, be|low a painted window. Have you discovered it? The colours of the glass throw, instead of light, a shade over that part of the church, which, perhaps, prevents your distinguishing what I mean!"
The Englishman looked whither his friend point|ed, and observed a confessional of oak, or some very dark wood adjoining the wall, and remarked also, that it was the same, which the assassin had just enter|ed. Page vi It consisted of three compartments, covered with a black canopy. In the central division was the chair of the confessor, elevated by several steps above the pavement of the church; and on either hand was a small closet, or box, with steps leading up to a grat|ed partition, at which the penitent might kneel, and, concealed from observation, pour into the ear of the confessor, the consciousness of crimes that lay heavy on his heart.
"You observe it?" said the Italian.
"I do," replied the Englishman; "it is the same which the assassin has passed into; and I think it one of the most gloomy spots I ever beheld; the view of it is enough to strike a criminal with despair!"
"We, in Italy, are not so apt to despair," replied the Italian smilingly.
"Well, but what of this confessional?" enquired the Englishman. "The assassin entered it!"
"He has no relation, with what I am about to mention," replied the Italian; "but I wish you to mark the place, because some very extraordinary cir|cumstances belong to it."
"What are they?" replied the Englishman.
"It is now several years since the confession, which is connected with them, was made at that very con|fessional," added the Italian; "the view of it, and the sight of this assassin, with your surprize at the liberty which is allowed him, led me to a recollection of the story. When you return to the hotel, I will com|municate it to you, if you have no pleasanter way of engaging your time.
"I have a curiosity to hear it," replied the En|glishman, "cannot you relate it now?,'
"It is much too long to be related now; that would occupy a week; I have it in writing, and will send you the volume. A young student of of Padua, who happened to be at Naples soon after this horri|ble confession became public"—
Page vii "Pardon me," interrupted the Englishman, "that is surely very extraordinary? I thought confessions were always held sacred by the priest, to whom they were made."
"Your observation is reasonable," rejoined the Italian; "the faith of the priest is never broken, ex|cept by an especial command from an higher power; and the circumstances must even then be very ex|traordinary to justify such a departure from the law. But, when you read the narrative, your surprise on this head will cease. I was going to tell you that it was written by a student at Padua, who, happening to be here soon after the affair became public, was so muck struck with the facts, that, partly, as an exer|cise, and partly, in return for some trifling services I had rendered him, he committed them to paper for me. You will perceive from the work, that this student was very young, as to the arts of composition, but the facts are what you require, and from these he has not deviated. But come let us leave the church."
"After I had taken another view of this solemn edifice," replied the Englishman, "and particularly of the confessional you have pointed to my notice!"
While the Englishman glanced his eye over the high roofs, and along the solemn perspectives of the Santa del Pianto, he perceived the figure of the assas|sin stealing from the confesional across the choir, and, shocked on again, beholding him, he turned his eyes, and hastily quitted the church.
The friends then separated and the Englishman, soon after returning to his hotel, received the volume. He read as follows: