European fascination for the American West was never more in evidence than in the late 1800s. Colonel William Frederick Cody—"Buffalo Bill"—after a lifetime of hunting, scouting and soldiering, took his enormously successful "Wild West" show on two tours of Europe. In 1887 he and his troupe went to Britain where they played to enthusiastic crowds —indeed, to an enthusiastic Queen Victoria, herself, who liked the show so much that she went back to see it a second time. Everyone was eager to see the fabled buffalo hunter and Indian fighter, the sharp–shooting Annie Oakley and bands of real Sioux warriors and, maybe—as did the Prince of Wales—even ride on the fabled Deadwood Stage!
Two years later, they returned to Europe and went to Italy where they were invited to the Vatican to attend the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the coronation of Pope Leo XIII. Also, in Verona, Cody fulfilled his ambition of exhibiting his "Wild West" (he disliked the term "show") in an ancient Roman amphitheater. (In Rome he was unable to fulfill his dream of playing in the Coliseum, itself, as there was too much rubble and stone cluttering the arena; he settled for having himself and his troupe photographed in front of it.)
A high point of the visit
to Rome was a bronco-busting challenge "grudge match"
between Buffalo Bill's cowboys and true working cowhands
from the Maremma region in central Italy, men who spent
much of their time working with the Cajetan breed of
horse, the wildest and most unmanageable in Italy. The
Prince of Teano challenged Cody's men to break the
Cajetans. Twenty thousand spectators saw the contest.
The Rome correspondent of the New York Herald wrote:
The brutes made springs into the air, darted hither and thither in all directions, and bent themselves into all sorts of shapes, but all in vain. In five minutes the cowboys had caught the wild horses with the lasso, saddled, subdued and bestrode them. Then the cowboys rode them around the arena while the dense crowds applauded with delight.
Depending on who is telling the story, the Maremma cowboys were then only marginally to moderately successful at trying to duplicate that feat on Cody's horses.
Buffalo Bill opened in
Naples on January 26, 1890. (An imaginative local
had counterfeited more than two-thousand tickets —and
why am I not surprised at that?!— producing great
confusion at the opening.) An ad in the Neapolitan
newspaper, il Paese, that day announced:
Buffalo Bill's Wild West!
Hunters & Cowboys!
200 animals, including wild buffaloes!
2 Week Engagement—Daily, 2,30 p.m.
Corso Meridionale, at the Rione Vasta.
Tickets: 1, 2, 3, 5 lire.
Buffalo Bill let the West run wild in Naples for a
while. Bear in mind that no one —not Cody, not his
company, and certainly not the people who watched them
perform throughout Europe— viewed this as a circus. It
was more of a replay, if you will, of current events. In
1890 the Indian Wars that had raged along the American
frontier had not even totally subsided. The West may
have been won, but the combatants were still very much
alive. The Native Americans in Cody's troupe were not
stage 'Indians'—they were the real thing, many of the
very same Sioux braves who had fought Custer at the
battle of the Little Big Horn. Indeed, they were in
Cody's troupe only because he got them released into his
custody for his tour after they were imprisoned in the
wake of the last great Sioux uprising. Back in America,
Chief Sitting Bull was still alive and still their
leader, (although he would be "shot while trying to
escape" from internment later that same year of 1890).
(Cody would live until 1917.)
The Neapolitan papers
praised Cody and his band:
That which may seem to the everyday Neapolitan to be a kind of game, an idle display of skill, is nothing less than a common necessity of everyday life in a country where acrobatic agility, boundless audacity and prowess are conditions for survival.The reporter was enthusiastic, yet, in the next breath, melancholy at what apparently was a "faithful reproduction" of the passing of a native race, of the "…red race fleeing from destruction wrought by whites".
Today, those raised on the
"authenticity" of films and television can scarcely
comprehend what a live display of this kind must have
meant to Europeans of the late 19th century. Speaking of
a simulated Sioux attack on an immigrant wagon train,
part of the daily show in Naples, the reporter for il
No description can convey the effect of an authentic mounted charge by Indians, this folk who here show us a few meager scenes from a life that until a few years ago was theirs to lead untrammeled.
Buffalo Bill Cody had
brought a kind of time machine with him. He had opened a
window and given a privileged few a chance to look out
and glimpse something very rare: an authentic
reproduction of a way of life played for them by the
very people who had led it. The window would soon close
and the players would become anachronisms and
caricatures of themselves. Then, generations of
imitators and made–up distortions of "cowboys and
Indians" would follow. For a fleeting moment, however,
the citizens of Naples and other European cities got a
chance to see the real thing.
A curious sidelight
Tales of Buffalo Bill
were present in much popular adventure fiction in many
countries in the early 20th century, including Italy. In
the 1920s, the Nerbini publishing house in Florence
started publishing, in illustrated format (I hesitate to
say “comic book”), the adventures of Buffalo Bill, l’eroe del
[the hero of the] Wild
West. Then WWII rolled around, and the US and
Italy were at war with each other. Italian scholar and
author, Umberto Eco, reports in his recent book, The Mysterious Flame of
Queen Loanna, that in 1942 some anonymous
Fascist party hack at Nerbini decided that real heroes
had to be Italian, not American! Thus, the publisher
concocted the story that William Cody was really an
Italian named Domenico Tombini who had emigrated from
Romagna, Mussolini’s native province (imagine that!), to
America and become the famous hero. Thus, for a while
you had the “Italian hero of the Wild West.” That story
is, of course, bunk. If Cody had been an Italian and
returned to Italy and Naples in 1890, that would have
been the real headline, not the buffaloes.
update/add, Oct. 2013
New York Times ran this article on May 18, 1890
about Cody's appearance in Verona:
COWBOYS IN OLD VERONA
DIOCLETIAN'S ARENA USED FOR THE WILD WEST SHOW.
DELIGHT OF THE ITALIANS — SOME OF THE SCENES AND INCIDENTS—
COWBOYS AND COL. CODY TALKED WITH.
Verona, Italy, April 26.—We arrived here a few days ago from Venice, and one can imagine our astonishment, as we rode in the car past the old arena of Diocletian in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, to behold on the very walls of the arena, where we had expected, perhaps, to see the marble busts of Roman Senators or Generals, the head of our very own American Buffalo Bill, sombrero and all. The train went too rapidly to permit our deciphering the inscription beneath the picture, especially as it was in Italian; but the next day, as we walked about town, we found the same bills posted up on all sides: Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Grande Arena di Verona per soli due giorni." Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show were in Verona, and the performance was to take place in the old Roman amphitheatre. Cowboys with sombreros and chaparajos were to take the place of nude gladiators or Christian martyrs; the American bison, Texas steer, and Indian buzzardhead were to be substituted for the savage panther, Bengal tiger, and African lion of days gone by. The Wild West Show was to perform in the ancient home of Roman culture and civilization for the edification of descendants of the Caesars, in an edifice constructed by a Roman emperor. What a colossal joke of history, on Roman emperors, and on the flight of time in general!
The first indication of the rising of the show above the horizon of Verona was a solitary cowboy on a buckskin cayuse, who road up to the amphitheatre and around it with a characteristic ambling gait. With one keen American glance he seemed to take in the whole town, amphitheatre, palaces, fortifications, and all. He halted his steed before the ancient archway, through which Diocletian and his suite, and since then Napoleon I., had ridden and called to the attendant within: "Get a gait on yourself, there, Beardy, and come and open this here iron fence." The cool, snappy, nasal accent and businesslike way of the man did an American's heart good to hear. Presently, in the direction of the railway station, arose a cloud of dust; then out of the dust the stalwart forms of cowboys, followed by buffaloes, Indians in red blankets, Texas steers, and Mexican vaqueros appeared. The singular cavalcade passed under the arches of the handsome Porta Nuova, up the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, the windows and both sides of the street thronged with people, past the Palazzo Fracastoro and the Palazzo Marioni, and pairing into the main entrance of the arena, finally disappeared behind the canvas curtain, to the no small regret of the Veronese street arabs.
The good people of Verona were to be seen on all sides, their faces full of open-eyed curiosity, some at their windows, others standing in groups in the marketplace, commenting upon the new arrival. "Oh, they are Africans. I know it by their black faces," said one man. And another: "It's a whole regiment, but they are brutti cavalieri." The inclination seemed to be to compare the cowboys with the mounted soldiery, and the comparison, in dress at least, was not favorable to the newcomers. Later on we paid a visit to the arena. The first thing which struck us was a vast number of moccasined feet projecting into the air from the topmost step of the arena. The Indians had wrapped themselves in their blankets and were lying sound asleep in the sun. Of the cowboys, some were busy whistling, while others were busy industriously whittling. Annie Oakley and two or three other cowboy girls dressed in Parisian gowns and bonnets, of a cut far and away from the frontier simplicity of their native heath, were viewing the amphitheatre. We heard one of them remark as they looked at the massive lintels and keystones of the old Romans: "Well, I allow they built this arena for keeps."
The bronchos were making themselves very much at home and did not appear to scent the blood of slaughtered lions upon the stones about them. The buffaloes nibbled at the little bunches of grass, now and then sniffing significantly, as if they had no very exalted opinion of Italian grass in general or of this arena grass in particular. There was nothing about the scene to tell us that the creatures we saw had not always lived in a Roman amphitheatre or that they were not perfectly at home there.
After leaving the amphitheatre we paid a visit to the camp in the company of a cowboy who, recognizing us as compatriots, volunteered to show us about. The camp was situated some distance from the arena in the deserted garden of an old palace. The tents and painted tepés of the Indians were pitched in two rows. In the open space between the tents a group of cowboys, Indians and Mexicans, seated upon boxes, were playing Spanish monte, while others were killing time with a game of dice called chuck-a-luck. The little piles of Italian soldi and lire would change places from time to time, but generally found their resting place in the dealer's pocket. There were two long tables spread with tin cups and dishes containing fried pork, chunks of beef, boiled beans, and potatoes, the identical fare of the Western ranch. Sad experience had taught the managers that it was better to make no innovation in the accustomed menu, polenta and spaghetti, frogs' legs and sauerkraut not being adaptable to the Indian stomach. Our guide said: "you see, they live here just as they do on their native prairies; the only change is that they have a few boards to sleep on or perhaps an iron bedstead, as the stones would be too cold. No, they have never slept in houses; modern improvements are just so many obstacles to their ideas of comfort. They prefer to camp out wherever they go, Europe or no Europe.
As we passed a tent where an old woman sat sewing, he said: "I want to present you to our mamma. That's the mamma of the camp. She's a sort of doctor, and doctors us cowboys up when we're sick. She makes clothes for the Indians and mends ours. She's a general mamma to the crowd. You know we have a pretty good time wherever we go and are well cared for. We get admission to all the theatres free because we draw a crowd. Why, in Naples we made the fortune of an old man at whose place we stopped. He had a tumbledown house where nobody went. When it was known that we were to be there the people flocked to it. He made enough money to keep him for the rest of his life, I guess" "What will you do when this show breaks up?" we asked. "Well, I have had an offer to break horses in Paris, which I think I will accept, but a man gets old awful quick at that sort of business. We cowboys could never work in the fields or anything like that. We couldn't stand it. We might give riding lessons, and some of us will probably do that, for we made a lot of money at it in Paris. We like Paris better than any place we have been in. One of our boys has died since we left home. It was our orator. He was a wonderful man. He learned to speak French in two months and one day, and was presented with a diploma for it by a gentleman of the Academy. They said he spoke it, too, with the genuine Parisian accent."
Col. Cody, when questioned about the Italian tour, said: "It has been a much greater success than we had hoped for. The Italians were delighted with the show. They said they had not had so great excitement in Rome since the days of Titus. The Romans brought their fiery horses from Campagna [sic] to us--wild beasts that had never been conquered--and my cowboys rode them. By gosh, they didn't know what to make of it. Some of their professional jockeys tried to ride our bronchos for a wager. They first strap a bed on the horse's back and then put on a saddle like a Roman tower which reaches up to their armpits. Then they stick a long iron down the horse's throat, which prevents him from getting his head down. They nearly killed two of our horses in this way, and after all failed to ride them. In Spain we did not do well, for we were there during the influenza, and who could have done business then? The Italians are poor, but they are nothing compared to the Spaniards. Countries where a little bit of a coin like this centime, a fifth of our cent, is in circulation must be poor countries. In the west our smallest coin is 25 cents, or one hundred and twenty-five times one of these, and we call ours a 'bit.' What would the boys call that? We like the Italians of the upper classes, who are very polite, but the lowest classes are mean and not to be trusted. Of course one has to excuse a great deal, as they have not much education. Yes, we did have a good deal of counterfeit money passed on us in Barcelona, but it didn't make much difference, for in Spain the banks trade in counterfeit money, and we took ours to a banker and sold it!
"The Indians are receiving the greatest benefit from traveling this way. They had no idea whatever of the world outside of their plains and prairies, and this is opening their eyes wonderfully to the earth's magnitude. I take them sightseeing with me, for we are under a verbal promise to the United States Government to instruct them in this way. They are great sightseers and enjoy themselves immensely. They will know all about this arena, its history and uses, before we go away. It's a mystery to us how they pick up their information about some things. They tell me they feel as if they were in a dream. I took five of the chiefs with me to Venice, and when in the morning they woke up and saw the gondolas floating by the doors of the houses they had to stick pins in themselves to make sure they were awake. Yes, they'll have a deal to tell about when they get home. In Rome they received the Pope's blessing; in fact, I noticed he blessed them twice, probably because he thought savages needed it more. We had to obtain a special dispensation for them in order that they should not be obliged to wear dress suits, which is the regular thing on such occasions. A curious thing we have noticed here in Italy is the similarity between Indian and Italian customs. For instance, the method of building the tombs is the same, the custom of decorating the outside of the habitations with paintings is the same, the cloaks the Italians wear wrapped about closely resemble the blankets of the Indians."
For two hours before the doors opened the people began to gather around the amphitheatre. Vendors of paper pinwheels and of Italian "pasta" at 5 centimes a cake were plying their trade among the crowd. We entered through a sombre passage, upon the walls of which, about ten feet above the ground, were the marks of the inundation of the Adige in 1882. Further on we came to the gladiators' cells, with their heavy iron doors. In this hall of the gladiators there is in the pavement a trap door opening upon a stream which flows into the Adige. It was into this stream, it is said, that the bodies of the gladiators and Christian martyrs were thrown. The crowd poured forth upon the steps of the amphitheatre through a number of "vomitorii" and distributed itself in the different priced seats which were partitioned off by boards. Only the best places at 3 lire (60 cents) had chairs. The other spectators were obliged to sit upon the stone steps or do as the custom was with Roman ladies—bring shawls and cushions to sit on. The women in the audience looked exceedingly picturesque with their black lace mantillas or veils of thin tulle falling over their tortoise-shell combs. As they entered, their pointed wooden sandals struck against the pavement and made a noise like the gurgling of water through a long-necked bottle. There were peasant women in brilliant calicoes of blue and red, pink and purple; some with babes in their arms. In the more expensive seats black-eyed damsels, with oval cheeks of olive hue, could be seen sporting lorgnettes and wearing real hats trimmed with brilliant green. There were men smoking extravagantly long and slender cigars called Virginias, and no end of tightly-trousered, gilt-edged soldiery. There were even tonsured monks in flowing gowns of brown, and black-robed priests to be seen whom illustrious men from a distant land had called forth from their cells. Italian waiters in swallow-tail coats and heads with an astonishing profusion of black hair passed beer about, calling: "Fresca birra, Signori, birra fresca!"
When the show finally made its appearance from beneath the Emperor's balcony, from which formerly the wild beasts issued, the enthusiasm of the Italians was unbounded. They literally showered Buffalo Bill with superlatives: "Bellissimo uomo! Magnifico! superbo!" and "Boofalo Beel!" resounded from all sides. The Indians, although they were thought to be Africans by many, were none the less interesting. "I passatempi dei cowboys" and "I cavalli bucking" were pronounced to be very wonderful. The Virgina reel, which was described in the programme as "Un ballo Virginia reel a cavallo, eseguito da ragazze dell'Ouest e cowboys," executed by the girls of the West and the cowboys, was much admired, and the "Attaco della diligenza di Deadwood dagl'Indiani, difesa operata dai cowboys al commando di Buffalo Bill" simply brought down the house. As the last horse of the last cowboy disappeared from the arena after the "saluto finale" the small boys of the audience, after the fashion of small boys at a show, swarmed down the steps into the arena, and we wondered as we went away if after those bloody spectacles for which the the edifice was built the Veronese boys of eighteen centuries ago had done the same.