“Rome was now the seat of my nativity. My mother was an African, a woman of no great beauty, but a favorite, I suppose from her piety, of pope Gregory II. Who was my father I know not, but I believe no very considerable man; for after the death of that pope, who was, out of his religion, a very good friend of my mother, we fell into great distress, and were at length reduced to walk the streets of Rome; nor had either of us any other support but a fiddle, on which I played with pretty tolerable skill; for, as my genius turned naturally to music, so I had been in my youth very early instructed at the expense of the good pope. This afforded us but a very poor livelihood: for, though I had often a numerous crowd of hearers, few ever thought themselves obliged to contribute the smallest pittance to the poor starving wretch who had given them pleasure. Nay, some of the graver sort, after an hour’s attention to my music, have gone away shaking their heads, and crying it was a shame such vagabonds were suffered to stay in the city.
“To say the truth, I am confident the fiddle would not have kept us alive had we entirely depended on the generosity of my hearers. My mother therefore was forced to use her own industry; and while I was soothing the ears of the crowd, she applied to their pockets, and that generally with such good success that we now began to enjoy a very comfortable subsistence; and indeed, had we had the least prudence or forecast, might have soon acquired enough to enable us to quit this dangerous and dishonorable way of life: but I know not what is the reason that money got with labor and safety is constantly preserved, while the produce of danger and ease is commonly spent as easily, and often as wickedly, as acquired. Thus we proportioned our expenses rather by what we had than what we wanted or even desired; and on obtaining a considerable booty we have even forced nature into the most profligate extravagance, and have been wicked without inclination.
“We carried on this method of thievery for a long time without detection: but, as Fortune generally leaves persons of extraordinary ingenuity in the lurch at last, so did she us; for my poor mother was taken in the fact, and, together with myself, as her accomplice, hurried before a magistrate.
“Luckily for us, the person who was to be our judge was the greatest lover of music in the whole city, and had often sent for me to play to him, for which, as he had given me very small rewards, perhaps his gratitude now moved him: but, whatever was his motive, he browbeat the informers against us, and treated their evidence with so little favor, that their mouths were soon stopped, and we dismissed with honor; acquitted, I should rather have it said, for we were not suffered to depart till I had given the judge several tunes on the fiddle.
“We escaped the better on this occasion because the person robbed happened to be a poet; which gave the judge, who was a facetious person, many opportunities of jesting. He said poets and musicians should agree together, seeing they had married sisters; which he afterwards explained to be the sister arts. And when the piece of gold was produced he burst into a loud laugh, and said it must be the golden age, when poets had gold in their pockets, and in that age there could be no robbers. He made many more jests of the same kind, but a small taste will suffice.
“It is a common saying that men should take warning by any signal delivery; but I cannot approve the justice of it; for to me it seems that the acquittal of a guilty person should rather inspire him with confidence, and it had this effect on us: for we now laughed at the law, and despised its punishments, which we found were to be escaped even against positive evidence. We imagined the late example was rather a warning to the accuser than the criminal, and accordingly proceeded in the most impudent and flagitious manner.
“Among other robberies, one night, being admitted by the servants into the house of an opulent priest, my mother took an opportunity, whilst the servants were dancing to my tunes, to convey away a silver vessel; this she did without the least sacrilegious intention; but it seems the cup, which was a pretty large one, was dedicated to holy uses, and only borrowed by the priest on an entertainment which he made for some of his brethren. We were immediately pursued upon this robbery (the cup being taken in our possession), and carried before the same magistrate, who had before behaved to us with so much gentleness: but his countenance was now changed, for the moment the priest appeared against us, his severity was as remarkable as his candor had been before, and we were both ordered to be stripped and whipped through the streets.
“This sentence was executed with great severity, the priest himself attending and encouraging the executioner, which he said he did for the good of our souls; but, though our backs were both flayed, neither my mother’s torments nor my own afflicted me so much as the indignity offered to my poor fiddle, which was carried in triumph before me, and treated with a contempt by the multitude, intimating a great scorn for the science I had the honor to profess; which, as it is one of the noblest inventions of men, and as I had been always in the highest degree proud of my excellence in it, I suffered so much from the ill-treatment my fiddle received, that I would have given all my remainder of skin to have preserved it from this affront.
“My mother survived the whipping a very short time; and I was now reduced to great distress and misery, till a young Roman of considerable rank took a fancy to me, received me into his family, and conversed with me in the utmost familiarity. He had a violent attachment to music, and would learn to play on the fiddle; but, through want of genius for the science, he never made any considerable progress. However, I flattered his performance, and he grew extravagantly fond of me for so doing. Had I continued this behavior I might possibly have reaped the greatest advantages from his kindness; but I had raised his own opinion of his musical abilities so high, that he now began to prefer his skill to mine, a presumption I could not bear. One day as we were playing in concert he was horribly out; nor was it possible, as he destroyed the harmony, to avoid telling him of it. Instead of receiving my correction, he answered it was my blunder and not his, and that I had mistaken the key. Such an affront from my own scholar was beyond human patience; I flew into a violent passion, I flung down my instrument in a rage, and swore I was not to be taught music at my age. He answered, with as much warmth, nor was he to be instructed by a strolling fiddler. The dispute ended in a challenge to play a prize before judges. This wager was determined in my favor; but the purchase was a dear one, for I lost my friend by it, who now, twitting me with all his kindness, with my former ignominious punishment, and the destitute condition from which I had been by his bounty relieved, discarded me for ever.
“While I lived with this gentleman I became known, among others, to Sabina, a lady of distinction, and who valued herself much on her taste for music. She no sooner heard of my being discarded than she took me into her house, where I was extremely well clothed and fed. Notwithstanding which, my situation was far from agreeable; for I was obliged to submit to her constant reprehensions before company, which gave me the greater uneasiness because they were always wrong; nor am I certain that she did not by these provocations contribute to my death: for, as experience had taught me to give up my resentment to my bread, so my passions, for want of outward vent, preyed inwardly on my vitals, and perhaps occasioned the distemper of which I sickened.
“The lady, who, amidst all the faults she found, was very fond of me, nay, probably was the fonder of me the more faults she found, immediately called in the aid of three celebrated physicians. The doctors (being well fee’d) made me seven visits in three days, and two of them were at the door to visit me the eighth time, when, being acquainted that I was just dead, they shook their heads and departed.
“When I came to Minos he asked me with a smile whether I had brought my fiddle with me; and, receiving an answer in the negative, he bid me get about my business, saying it was well for me that the devil was no lover of music.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50