The Legend of the Gypsy

Before quitting the subject of the Riposo, I must mention a very pretty and poetical legend which I have met with in one picture only : a description of it may, however, lead to the recognition of others.

There [was] in the collection of Lord Shrewsbury, at Alton Towers, a Riposo attributed to Giorgione, remarkable equally for the beauty and the singularity of the treatment. The Holy Family are seated in the midst of a wild but rich landscape, quite in the Venetian style ; Joseph is asleep; the two children are playing with a lamb. The Virgin, seated, holds a book, and turns round, with an expression of surprise and alarm, to a female figure who stands on the right. This woman has a dark physiognomy, ample flowing drapery of red and white, a white turban twisted round her head, and stretches out her hand with the air of a sibyl. The explanation of this striking group I found in an old ballad-legend. Every one who has studied :the moral as well as the technical character of the various schools of Art must have remarked how often the Venetians (and Giorgione more especially) painted groups from the popular fictions and ballads of the time ; and it has often been regretted that many of these pictures are become unintelligible to us from our having lost the key to them, in losing all trace of the fugitive poems or tales which suggested them.

The religious ballad I allude to must have been popular in the sixteenth century ; it exists in the Provençal dialect, in German, and in Italian ; and, like the wild ballad of St. John Chrysostom, it probably came in some form or other from the East. The theme is, in all these versions, substantially the same. The Virgin, on her arrival in Egypt, is encountered by a gypsy (Zingara or Zingarella) who crosses the Child’s palm after the gypsy manner, and foretells all the wonderful and terrible things which, as the Redeeemer of mankind, he was destined to perform and endure on earth.

An Italian version which lies before me is entitled, Canzonetta nuova, sopra la Madonna, quando si parto in Egitto col Bambino Gesh e San Giuseppe, ” A new Ballad of our Lady, when she fled into Egypt with the Child Jesus and St. Joseph.”

It begins with a conversation between the Virgin, who has just arrived from her long journey, and the gypsy woman, who thus salutes her : —


Dio ti salvi, bella Signora, E ti dia buona ventura. Ben venuto, vecchiarello, Con questo bambino bello!


Ben trovata, sorella mia, La sua grazia Dio ti dia. Ti perdoni i tuoi peccati L’ infinith sua bontade.


Siete stanchi e meschini, Credo, poveri pellegrini Che cercate d’ alloggiare. Vuoi, Signora, scavalcare?


God save thee, fair lady, and give thee good luck! Welcome, good old man,with this thy fair child!


Well met, sister mine! God give Thee grace, and of his infinite mercy forgive thee thy sins!


Ye are tired and drooping, poor pilgrims, as I think, seeking a night’s lodging. Lady, wilt thou choose to alight?


Voi che siete, sorella mia, Tutta piena di cortesia, Dio vi renda la carità Per 1′ infinità sua bonth. Noi veniam da Nazareth:), Siamo senza alcun ricetto, Arrivati all’ strania Stanchi e lassi dalla via!


O sister mine! full of courtesy, God of his infinite goodness reward thee for thy charity. We are come from Nazareth, and we are without a place to lay our heads, arrived in a strange land, all tired and weary with the way!

The Zingarella then offers them a resting-place, and straw and fodder for the ass, which being accepted, she asks leave to tell their fortune, but begins by recounting, in about thirty stanzas, all the past history of the Virgin pilgrim ; she then asks to see the Child.

Ora tu, Signora mia, And now, O Lady mine, that art full of Che sel piena di cortesia, courtesy, grant me to look upon thy Son, the Mostramelo per favore Redeemer! Lo tue Figlio Redentore!

The Virgin takes him from the arms of Joseph —

Datemi, o care sposo, Give me, dear husband, my lovely boy, Lo mio Figlio grazioso! that this poor gypsy, who is a prophetess, Quando it vide eta meschina may look upon him. Zingarella, che indovina!

The gypsy responds with becoming admiration and humility, praises the beauty of the Child, and then proceeds to examine his palm ; which having done, she breaks forth into a prophecy of all the awful future, tells how he would be baptized, and tempted, scourged, and finally hung upon a cross —

Qnesto Figlio accarezzato Tu to vedrai ammazzato Sopra d’ una dura croce, Figlio hello ! Figlio dolce!

but consoles the disconsolate Mother, doomed to honor for the sake of us sinners —

Sei arrivata a tanti onori Per not altri Peccatori!

and ends by begging an alms —

Non It vo’ più infastidire, Bella Signora ; so ch’ hai a fare. Dona la limosinella A ‘sta povera Zingarella.

But not alms of gold or of silver, but the gift of true repentance and eternal life.

Vo’ una vera contrizione Per la tua intercezione, Acciô st’ alma dopo morte Tragga aile celesti porte !

And so the story ends.

There can be no doubt, I think, that we have here the original theme of Giorgione’s picture, and perhaps of others.

In the Provençal ballad there are three gypsies, men, not women, introduced, who tell the fortune of the Virgin and Joseph, as well as that of the Child, and end by begging alms “to wet their thirsty throats.” Of this version there is a very spirited and characteristic translation by Mr. Kenyon, under the title of ” A Gypsy Carol.”






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