There is a sentence in «Il fu Mattia Pascal» by Luigi Pirandello. Here I give it along with the preceding sentences.

È ben chiaro che questo Monsignore dovette conoscer poco l’indole e le abitudini de’ suoi concittadini; o forse sperò che il suo lascito dovesse col tempo e con lacomodità accendere nel loro animo l’amore per lo studio. Finora, ne posso rendere testimonianza, non si è acceso: e questo dico in lode de’ miei concittadini. Del dono anzi il Comune si dimostrò così poco grato al Boccamazza, che non volle neppure erigergli un mezzobusto pur che fosse, e i libri lasciò per molti e molti anni accatastati in un vasto e umido magazzino, donde poi li trasse, pensate voi in quale stato, per allogarli nella chiesetta fuori mano di Santa Maria Liberale, non so per qual ragione sconsacrata. Qua li affidò, senz’alcun discernimento, a titolo di beneficio, e come sinecura, a qualche sfaccendato ben protetto il quale, per due lire al giorno, stando a guardarli, o anche senza guardarli affatto, ne avesse sopportato per alcune ore il tanfo della muffa e del vecchiume.

Treccani says (2b) that «titolo» means a section in the accounting book of a community (il comune); a title for expenditures, in this case. And, as I gathered, «beneficio» (benefice) was in the medieval times something given by a padron in return for services (or labour). So the thing kind of fits together. Of course, the story is placed in the beginning of the 20th century, not in the medieval times; but the community might, I think, still have had a section in its accounting book with such name, beneficii.

So, my question is: could Pirandello, in any reasonable probability, have used the words «a titolo di beneficio» in their direct sense? Or it was surely just a metaphor, meaning “the mindset was in the style of the Middle Ages”? In such case, the word «titolo» certainly meant something else (like 4 from the same dictionary)…

  • 1
    In this case the meaning of titolo is the (6c) in the Treccani vocabulary (while beneficio has the meaning (1) of its entry). The sense is that the duty of "guarding" the books is in practice a donation (and does not require work from the beneficiary).
    – Denis Nardin
    Feb 22 '17 at 15:39
  • @DenisNardin It seems I get it. The jerk of this expression is that the municipality of course didn't think it was done because of philanthropy, while in fact it was.
    – Wanderer
    Feb 22 '17 at 16:27
  • It is more that the municipality did not see the point of those books and so did not know what to do with them (or even cared much about them).
    – Denis Nardin
    Feb 22 '17 at 16:32
  • @DenisNardin That much is certain. I refer rather to this expression alone. The municipality gave them in the hands of such people as Mattia Pascal because it thought that that would constitute “care for the books”, whatever that means. It did so because of philanthropy, actually: nothing more was done. But in their own minds, that was a meaningful act. While the English expressions “for the sake of” or “because of” make one believe that philanthropy was also the subjective reason they were thinking of, not just the actual reason that took place objectively.
    – Wanderer
    Feb 22 '17 at 16:39

As DenisNardin said in his comment above, the correct meaning of the word titolo in this phrase is described at the point 6.c of the voice that you cited on the Treccani. The whole phrase is actually quite ironic, and underlines the scarce value given to the books by the citizens.

The real gift here is the sinecura, a job that does not require any effort; to take care of something in which no one has the minimum interest. Even if "due lire" in 1900 corresponded to about 7 euros today, which is not a big sum.

  • @Wanderer I checked the value of the lira in 1900, and found that the actual value of due lire was not that much. I corrected the answer accordingly.
    – CasaMich
    Feb 22 '17 at 16:09
  • The source I found somewhat agrees. Though I must mention that Mrs Pescatore had an even lesser pension than 60 lire monthly and a prospect that a family of four (+ not-yet born children) would live by it… Perhaps it was that they didn't have to spend on transport, or something like that…
    – Wanderer
    Feb 22 '17 at 17:14
  • @Wanderer, CasaMich: Comparison between money in different eras are tricky, since there was a much bigger social inequality (e.g. what was pocket money for the children of the rich, was a month's wage for a poor father of four...). 1900 is not so far to render the comparison meaningless, but it is hard to say if two lire was a lot for someone of that particular social status.
    – Denis Nardin
    Feb 22 '17 at 17:37

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