From the department of “nomen est omen”…
Above: the celebrated 17th-century Italian actor Tiberio Fiorilli as Scaramouche (or Scaramuccia), the commedia dell’arte character that he popularized during his tenure at the Comédie-Italienne (image via the Wiki Creative Commons).
Like many of my fellow Americans, I’ve been dismayed by the ongoing degradation of civil discourse in our country, which most recently found its apotheosis in the figure of Anthony Scaramucci. Whatever your political viewpoint, there’s no denying that his embrace of vulgarity and profanity in mainstream media is yet another sign of the times and an indicator of the decline of politesse in politics.
But I have also been dismayed by the many pejorative and degrading stereotypes of Italian-Americans and Italians that have been employed by mainstream media in describing Scaramucci’s regrettable but sadly unavoidable — given the tenor and timbre politics today — approach to American politics and policy.
Yesterday, for example, I heard a commentator compare him to Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny, the 1992 microagression against the progeny of Italian immigrants.
I’ve also heard a number of journalists make allusions to the lyrics of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango — where the band purposefully employs (literal) gibberish as literary nonsense.
Like the French calque scaramouche, the family name Scaramucci comes from the Italian scaramuccia, which means and is akin to the English skirmish (both terms probably come from the Frankish or Longobardic skirmjan).
The surname is still commonly found in Italy, mostly in Tuscany and the Marches. And even in the wake of the recent seismic activity in Italy, Palazzo Scaramucci — a trace of the noble Scaramucci family that once thrived there — still reportedly stands in Norcia.
When I looked up scaramuccia in the Treccani encyclopedia (Italy’s Britannica), I wasn’t surprised to find that an early example of its usage is ascribed to Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, where the historian reflects on Roman models of conquest and governance with an eye to politics and warfare in his own time.
He offers the definition of scaramuccia in his chapter on “what esteem artillery should be held by armies at the present time, and whether the opinion universally held in its regard is sound.”
“It is an accepted maxim,” writes the author of The Prince, “that against a heavy massed attack, artillery is powerless. For this reason the defending of towns against the fury of ultramontane [northern nations’] attacks has not been successful… [But] against the assaults of Italians they have been highly successful, for the latter do not attack en masse but in detachments, a form of attack for which … the best name is skirmishing [skirmishes, scaramucce, the plural of scaramuccia].”
(Translation by Leslie Walker, revised 1970, Penguin.)
Artillery was the cutting-edge weaponry in Machiavelli’s era. To offer some context, firearms like the arquebus, an early form of the long gun, were first introduced into combat in Machiavelli’s time. How wars were fought was a major concern to him and his contemporaries.
In the century after Machiavelli, scaramuccia would enter the public consciousness with the rise of Tiberio Fiorilli’s role as Scaramuccia in the Comédie-Italienne.
According to the Britannica, Scaramuccia was a “stock character of the Italian theatrical form known as the commedia dell’arte; an unscrupulous and unreliable servant. His affinity for intrigue often landed him in difficult situations, yet he always managed to extricate himself, usually leaving an innocent bystander as his victim.”*
To borrow a phrase dear to Dante, it would seem that nomina sunt consequentia rerum.
* From the Britannica: “Scaramouche was originally a variation of the commedia character Capitano, a braggart soldier. The role was closely associated with the Italian actor Tiberio Fiorillo (1608–94), who played without a mask. He transformed the military role to that of a comic servant, usually an indigent gentleman’s valet. His costume was black breeches, jacket, cloak, and beret.”