Vincenzo Peschi the Figaro [1]

  Beard, Hair and Fantasy

       By Nicola Piccone
His name was Vincenzo and he had a very unusual surname for our parts, where there is a proliferation of families such as Teti, Antrilli, Ficca, Porreca and other houses of equal lineage that some centuries ago were vying with the local Barons for the arid, stony, feudal lands surrounding our village. We remember that his Uncle had been the barber and that from a young age Vincenzo learnt the art from him, looking after the shop and as a brush-boy, then, when it was time for him to get married, he become its proprietor thanks to it being graciously gifted to him.

Zio (Uncle) Camillo, who retired because of old age (but without a pension because they didn’t exist in those days) left not only his razor and his brush to his nephew, but also a large clientele and the license to be messenger of the Conciliazione[2].

The succession occurred before the War in Ethiopia, when silver 5 lire pieces were in circulation, with a picture of an Imperial Eagle on them (called the “pigeon” perhaps because of its mild appearance but also because it is perched on a sort of a gutter), and when arguments amongst the poor were fairly frequent, usually involving abusive pasturing, small thefts of logs of wood or bundles of brushwood twigs, injuries and other “trash” of little criminal relevance. Vincenzo was in charge of delivering injunctions, decrees and citations and also for the Prefecture though without an Official Judiciary title, and because of these positions he knew absolutely everyone; he was a sort of computerised Registrar.

With his fast legs, optimum memory and his willingness to work hard, he was often to be seen at dawn, already prepared to shunt out the Justice papers to the surrounding districts, or to go to the houses of elderly clients, carrying the tools of his trade in a small trunk-like cloth bag. He looked like an actor when, on going to their homes, he would attend to freeing the elderly and the ill of their superfluous hair, or when he carried his small collection of home-bred leeches, with all the necessary discretion of the case, to use for therapeutic bloodlettings.

Open full time, his shop was a sort of social centre, used as a meeting place, for conversations, comments on the facts of the day, the lottery and as a reading room for the newspapers, The “Tribune” and The “Giornale d’Italia”. Vincenzo also sold newspapers (in those days they arrived with the evening coach, when news had already become history) and he had many other skills, he was always available for any set of circumstances.
 But his main strength was fantasy, his imagination flourished without brakes and without hesitation, wisely delivered with expressions of unsuspected seriousness to his customers, psychologically identified as naďve or gullible.

Especially in the winter, when there were many who frequented his shop, lined up along the walls enjoying the warmth of a charcoal brazier. Vincenzo became an incomparable lecturer. He made his listeners drowsy with his stories. With the snow of the very long winter outside, the atmosphere inside was smoky and in the dim light, spread by frugal light bulbs, one could catch a glimpse of Vincenzo wearing his white jacket, standing in front of the large misted mirror that was like scenery for him (with the writing Happy Christmas painted by dipping his finger into the shaving soap which camped out in the corner and stayed there until Carnevale[3]) intent on rattling off his usual evening lecture.

He recounted facts from the past as if he had lived them himself and had witnessed them personally, and when he told tall stories he would turn his back on the listeners and involve himself in designing a tapering cut using his scissor-comb on the unlucky occupant of the sheering chair. One calls it a sheering chair not to diminish the professional capability of the operator, but rather to qualify the customer of this performance, who would visit Vincenzo at three monthly intervals.

The themes of his lectures were many and varied. On agriculture, for example, he spoke of thoroughbred pigs raised in nearby villages, which by January weighed more than three and a half quintals[4]; he told of fabulous harvests of grain or potatoes in the land around Pizzoferrato and Gamberale and for other subjects he would describe imaginary riches, fantastic weddings, complicated lawsuits, with reference to invented facts and personages entirely made up by him or he might speak about amazing miracles.

He was totally aware of what he was saying and enjoyed the credit that he received from his passive, silent audience.

Whenever someone questioned him in an attempt to put a better perspective on some over-exaggerated reference or to clarify some fact or other, then the intelligent lecturer used to give the contested episode a more convincing dialogue, or else he himself would place doubt, diplomatically, on the received source of information.

That he was telling tall stories and was

              Vincenzo Peschi at his business

selling them as such, was known to many friends and clients; but they only came to realise that they were stories, fanciful and sometimes absurd, with the passage of time, when they noticed the true facts; yet despite this, the entire audience liked him and regarded the author of this rubbish with great affection.

About ten years ago, on the occasion of the feast-day of San Nicola, organized by the hundred or so men with the same name as that miracle worker from Bari, a qualified artist, maker of paper balloons, came to the village to release them into the air, multicoloured specimens, messages of devoutness. Many balloons were released, large and small, round and pear-shaped, with writings and images of various types, but none of them rose any higher than the belfry. We never found out the cause of this failure of that joyous event, and the organisers of the festa thought the introduction of their novel attraction was a great disappointment, although it was an addition to the usual sack race, cycling competition and fireworks.

When they reached a certain height, just above the rooftops, all the balloons dispersed downhill, each one running after the other almost in Indian file. Somebody observed that the artist, because he was a stranger, had not taken into account the “civitarese”; that treacherous little wind which blows at low levels; but Vincenzo, a connoisseur on the subject in a figurative sense, on observing this strange phenomenon, passed judgment that it was not sufficient to know how to make the balloons, but one also had to know how to “inflate” them. Vincenzo Peschi was a soldier in the Light Cavalries of Savoy, and already as a young man he had learned the art of launching himself beyond reality, on the saddle of an imitator of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology.

[1] Figaro – the name given jokingly to a barber; from the name of the protagonist of the comedy by the French writer P.-A. de Beaumarchais The Barber of Seville (1775), which he later rewrote as another comedy The Marriage of Figaro (1783). Later still it appeared in the works of Paisiello, Mozart and Rossini.
The name of the character Figaro is derived from the jacket of the same name; a Figaro being the short, Spanish-style jacket such as is worn by barbers.

[2] “La Conciliazione” – the Lateran Pact – 1929 – the agreement between the Italian State and the Holy See.
The Lateran Treaties of February 11, 1929 provided for the mutual recognition of the then Kingdom of Italy and the Vatican City. The treaties were negotiated between Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri on behalf of the Holy See, and Benito Mussolini, the Fascist leader, as Prime Minister of Italy. There are three treaties:
 A treaty recognising the independence and sovereignty of the Holy See and creating the State of the Vatican City.
 A concordat defining the civil and religious relations between the government and the church within Italy (summarised in the motto: "free church in free State").
 A financial convention providing the Holy See with compensation for its losses in 1870.
Through the concordat, the Pope agreed to submit candidates for bishop and archbishop to the Italian government, to require bishops to swear allegiance to the Italian state before taking office, and to forbid the clergy from taking part in politics. Italy agreed to submit its rules on marriage and divorce to make them conformable to the rules of the Roman Catholic Church, and to exempt clergy from military conscription. The treaties granted the Roman Catholic Church the status of the established church in Italy. They also gave the Roman Catholic Church substantial control over the Italian educational system.
The treaties were revised in 1984, primarily to remove the establishment of the Catholic Church in Italy.

[3] Carnevale - The Carnival Season is a holiday period during the two weeks before the traditional Christian fast of Lent. The origin of the name "Carnival" is unclear as there are several theories. The most commonly known theory states that the name comes from the Italian carne- or carnovale, from Latin carnem (meat) + levare (lighten or raise), literally "to remove the meat" or "stop eating meat". It has also been claimed that it comes from the Latin words caro (meat) and vale (farewell), hence "Farewell to meat". Yet another theory states that it originates from the Latin carrus navalis, which was some kind of Greek cart carrying a statue of a god in a religious procession at the annual festivities in honour of the god Apollo.
Most commonly the season began on Septuagesima, the third from the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, but in some places it started as early as Twelfth Night, continuing until Lent. This period of celebration and partying had its origin in the need to use up all remaining meat and animal products such as eggs and butter before the fasting season. The celebration of Carnival ends on "Mardi Gras" (French for "Fat Tuesday", meaning Shrove Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday, when the rigours of Lent's 40 days of fasting and sacrifice begin.

[4] The quintal is an historical unit of mass, first used about 1400 AD, now having many different definitions in different countries.
Derived from the Latin centenarius, meaning 100 pounds, the unit was and still is used in the Arab world, where it is known as the qintar. It is currently defined informally as 50 kg. The qintar was imported to Europe by traders. In France it was defined as 100 livres, about 48.95 kg, although it has now been redefined as 100 kg. In Spain it is still defined as 100 libras, or about 46 kg, and in Portugal as 128 libras or about 58.75 kg. The English quintal, now obsolete, was defined sometimes as 100 lb (exactly 45.359 237 kg) and sometimes as 112 lb (about 50.80 kg).
The metric quintal is defined in the U.S. as 100 kilograms. This unit is not recognised by the SI, but is used in agriculture for measuring grain.

© Amici di Torricella            No 14 December 1994 page 7

Translation courtesy of Dr. Marion Apley Porreca

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