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The Florentine Ceppo 21/12/2011

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c. 1910

At Florence, as elsewhere, [Christmas] is the season when presents are made by persons of means to their servants, tradesmen, and dependants of every kind. These ‘boxes’, as we call them, are known in Tuscanyas ceppi or ‘logs’, and the name shows that the Yule-log is a reality here, far deeper and more ancient than the show of seasonable holly and mistletoe laid out for the foreigner on the Lung’ Arno would lead one to suspect. These greens are a display unknown till recent years, but the Ceppo is an ancient local usage which deserves consideration. The name of the Ceppo is derived, almost without change, from the Latin cippus, the tree-trunk, and the log was great indeed which used to burn on every Tuscan hearth as each 24 December came round. Boccaccio, condescending for a moment from mythology to describe the habits of his own country and people, tells what was done at Christmas inFlorence: how the house-father laid the great log on the Lari, as the fire-dogs of the hearth were called in his day; how the family gathered about it, while their head called for wine, drank, and poured a libation from his cup on the glowing wood, after which the others drank in turn as the cup went round. Later authorities enable us to complete the scene, telling how the log was beaten to make the sparks fly up the chimney, and that the Florentines liked it large, so that when kindled it might burn long, even for days, without going out. Here then are all the signs which show the antiquity of a rite. The house itself, without further consecration than the presence there of the family, is the temple; the hearth the altar, and the father the priest. The Lari, or fire-dogs, are the Dii Lares of Roman household religion. The ceppo itself is a true and huge tree-trunk; it must be so if, as we shall presently see, it is to burn continuously for twelve days. One thinks of it as set on end, reaching high in the chimney and sinking gradually to the hearth day by day as it burns away from the root. Thus, behind Roman religion, we find what preceded it. The Ceppo is a yearly return to the original life of the woods, when the hunter’s fire smouldered from day to day in the root of the standing tree, and when that hearth, blown betimes to a leaping flame, gathered about it all the mystery and comfort that might belong to forest nights in winter: their encompassing fear and its sure, if narrow remedy. What we know of how this primitive religion developed in the definite worship of the Lares shows that the libation of wine at Ceppo, still used atFlorence in the fourteenth century if no later, represents an offering .to the spirits of darkness and of the underworld; perhaps to those of the dead.

Beans and the Befana 08/12/2011

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As we have seen, it has been the Florentine habit to prepare for the moment of danger by a special diet. A full meal is eaten, and children especially are encouraged to partake plentifully of beans against the coming of the Befana. This food, as is well known, has certain physical consequences, and the verse the full-fed children sing shows that these are counted on for the success of the matter in hand. Only the children whose bodies are ‘like drums’ are those who may hope to escape.

Practical Jokes at Easter 10/11/2011

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c. 1910

Within the memory of those still living, mischievous boys, armed with needles and stout pack-thread, passed unobserved through the crowded Piazza on Easter Saturday, sewing the clothes of the countryfolk together in the press. Wlien the ‘Scoppio del Carro’ was over, and the crowd broke up, the feast became a true hilaria of jest levelled at the unfortunate men and women who stood perplexed at the trick, and confused in their vain attempts to separate. The pack-thread that joined the people clearly corresponded to the cord that united the pyres and directed the dove, the messenger of Venus and the bearer of her fires.

Slade, ‘Since this must be my final’ 25/10/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s seventh poetical epistle: Florence, 10 March 1908

Since this must be my final ere we meet

In London on Good Friday, you shall come

And gaze your last on Florence from the hill

Where ‘David’s’ bronze replica, dominant,

Stares out intrepid on his unseen foes

Past tower, tree, and villa unabashed.

There’s surely no man born could frown him down,

Or move his calm and kingly arrogance

From its fell purpose.

Florence lies below

Like scattered shingle on a desert strand

Where waves have flung their pearl and amber down,

So bright the houses gleam below the hills.

If it’s a sunny day and clear, you’ll view

Fiesole perched high and looped about

With spiral roads that make the way seem long

So often do you turn and turn about

Before you reach the tall lean tower that tolls

The hours for labour and the church’s call.

Then further to your right there’s Ripoli;

A snowy-terraced mountain lies beyond

That tells of air too chilly for the vines;

And to your left tall Mount Morello tilts

A bare grey shoulder into the blue sky.

It’s only half a minute you’ll stay so

Before a tout comes wheedling with his wares.

You fly him like the pest he is, and leap

The steps alternate on the steep stone way

That slants through trees precipitously down

To Porta San Miniato where they tax

All dutiable produce passing through.

Keep on due north and soon you’ll cross a Bridge

Over the river romping to its bourne;

On the green edge gay petticoats a-gleam

Where Arno serves as wash-tub for the wives.

From a high window in a neighbouring palace

A grey-garbed signorina lures your eye

With such a growth of bronze hair in thick braids

Not needing ribbon to maintain it so

In all its wiry vigour freshly coiled,

And such a poise of figure as she leans

Her bare arms on a faded balcony.

Above, a half-obliterated bust

Struck from the stone to mark some ancient triumph,

Looks down on the plebeian multitude

Crowned with vain laurel garlands that acclaim

To all the world its futile arrogance.

I haunt this bridge at nightfall for the sake

Of serenaders with their mandolines

Who, with their trilling, snare light coins that

Fall from blazing hotel windows opened wide,

Along the Arno all the lamps a-row

Shoot down long spears of light into the stream.

The plaintive music swells and ebbs and dies;

Lights twinkle; and the water tremulous

Reflects the thousand lamps like truant stars

Drawn earthward from their chilly altitudes

By the long-wailing music’s amorous tone.

From the far bank the vesper chimes float down

To flout these chants of pagan minstrelsy,

From belfries where the priest-like cypress trees

Keep their eternal vigil night and day.

Here is an echo of a plaintive song,

Song in high tenor there a week ago

English dims its native colouring.

Lovely and strong, now man at his labour

Yearns for his bride.

One that waits for him only I am forsaken.

Now is the vintage come and the vintners

Work in the sun,

Red blood swift in its ferment

Feeding their sinews.

Singing they move in line, and the trellis

Yieldeth its fruit.

Young boys swift to the wine-press

Bear it in baskets.

Laden twixt arm and hip, they are moving

Downward the slope,

One arm wide and the other

Crooked to the burden.

Yonder the brook runs swift, and the cresses

Shake to its song.

Girls spread over the willows

Newly-rinsed linen.

White as the snow it gleams or the lilies

White in the fields;

White swan’s down is not whiter

Cast on the river.

Lovely and strong now man at his labour

Yearns for his bride,

One that waits for him only

I am forsaken.

Wandering last night among the gloomy bow’rs

That crest Mount Oliveto, 1 was moved

By a most gaunt old cypress tree that seemed

The spirit of my darker self that leant

His cheek to mine and whispered ‘All is ill.

The earth is grown too old and topples downward

Into that sunless chaos whence she rose

Because the elder gods are all forgot’.

His cone was a black finger on the sky

Where thunder muttered; and the scared wind smote

The pliant boughs into a hymn of praise

In honour of gods forgotten utterly.

The rain fell downward, hissing in my ears;

Frayed birds fled homeward; and I shut my

Eyes enchaining so the phantom images

Raised by the thunder’s riot; and I heard

Hard breathing and the hurried beat of hooves

From men and beasts, as in an earlier day,

Battling anew for mastery of the world

The cypress sang another song of old.

When grief was sin and strength was bom of joy,

All trees that flourished were as ministers

To hearten and console; their boughs conspired

In benediction round the homes of men.

Well, that’s my fancy. Here the thing’s worked out

Into a chant slow sung reproachfully

By hidden dryads to complaining boors

In times when these lacked trains and telephones,

Three posts a day and pensions from the state,

And yet perchance were happier. Who shall say?

Are things uncouth?

There shall be loveliness if you be kind.

Fear draws a veil o’er beauty,

Death’s own shadow.

Fear not your kin;

For if all men be watchers who shall toil!

Chill hearts among the sowers

Chill earth’s bosom.

O, soft and brave

Are men who earn our favour, maiming naught.

Mindful are they and cherish

Newt and fledgling;

And when these pass,

Or a frayed squirrel scampers up the bole,

Clap not their hands nor gather

Mirth from terror.

Who snare or slay

Snare their own spirit, clip the wings of joy;

Nor shall the earth for slayers

Yield her plenty.

All things that live

Share of their loveliness with them that love.

Our breath shall shape their nostrils,

Fan their pulses.

Farewell till Friday week, I’m loth to leave

My lair among the house-tops with its view

Of Giotto’s bell-tower leaping to the sky

Most like a froz’n cascade, all iridescent,

My uncompleted canvas, and my hosts

So prompt and sedulous to all my needs.

But other things a-tugging at my heart

Make call peremptory – my village home.

Green fields, trim hedgerows and my mother tongue

From voices that I love among the Downs.

Hail Clouds in Chianti 19/10/2011

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How often, in summers spent near Siena, I have heard, as the hail clouds darkened over the Chianti, church after church take up the flying peal, ringing to break the cloud and avert the danger! The direct, unmistakable claim of the church-bells themselves, the fulgura frango so often fused with them as a bell-inscription, shows that in no secondary sense as a call to prayer, but in itself, the sound of the bell is relied on as a true defence. Nor is any ritual consecration by the Church thought necessary to secure this effect. In the days of danger, between Christmas and Epiphany at the opening of the year, I have met in a Tuscan country town masked dancers in white, ringing bells at nightfall in the principal street. And these were precisely horse-bells which the maskers had hung about their necks, strap and all, just as they came from the harness. It would seem, in fact, that what brightness and colour are trusted to do by day is secured by night when the bells are heard; the baroccio and its driver travel safely in the darkness under cover of that cheerful chime.

Daisies of Florence by Kathleen Raine 18/10/2011

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File:Kathleen Raine.jpg

This poem by Kathleen Raine (obit 2003) was first published in 1965.

Bambini picking daisies in the new spring grass

Of the Boboli gardens

Now and now and now in rosy-petalled fingers hold

The multitude of time.

To the limits of the small and fine florets innumerable of white and gold

They know their daisies real.


Botticelli with daisies from the timeless fields of recollection scatters

That bright Elysium or Paradise

Whose flowers none can gather,

Where spirits immortal walk for ever

With her who walks through spring after spring in primavera robed,

Ripening the transient under her veil.

Folk Tales in the Maremma 12/10/2011

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c. 1910

A story told to the writer by a charcoal burner in the great chestnut forest, which covers the lower slopes of Monte Amiata on the border of the Tuscan Maremma, has no doubt a Pagan derivation. In this forest far from railways the Barocciaio or carrier is an important person and the hero of many adventures. A barocciaio, travelling by night, came to a spot where his mules would go no further; looking around he saw an old man, who mounted the baroccio (country cart) and immediately the mules went forward. Presently they came to a church, when the old man said: ‘Go in and ring the church bells.’ The barocciaio answered: ‘Buon’ vecchio, the church tower will be shut at this hour.’ The old man answered: ‘Do as I say.’ So the barocciaio got off the cart and went to the church, and to his surprise the door of the tower was open, but in the doorway stood a great lady in a beautiful mantle with a child in her arms. She asked: ‘What do you want to do?’ and the barocciaio said: ‘Ring the bells’; and she asked: ‘Who told you to ring them’; he answered: ‘The old man’; and she answered: ‘If you had obeyed him, it would have rained fire upon the earth for three days.’ So he went back to the old man, who asked why he had not rung the bells. He told him what the lady had said, whereupon the old man cried ‘Maria! Maria! You are the stronger’ and disappeared.

Banking in Shakespeare’s Florence 04/10/2011

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Taming of the Shrew IV, II: The Pedant Speaks

Alas, sir, it is worse for me than so!
For I have bills for money by exchange
From Florence, and must here deliver them.

Viaggi Circulari on the Trains 01/10/2011

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c. 1880

To those intending to travel in Italy, great advantages are held out by the railway companies in the shape of circular tour tickets (viaggi circulari). The Indicatore della Strada Ferrata contains a list with plans of a large number of such tours, the tickets for which are issued, enduring, according to the length of tour, from ten to sixty days (which cannot be extended), at the large reduction of 45 per cent, upon the price which would otherwise be exigible. One of these tours is, for example, a complete round of Italy – from Turin by the west coast, embracing Florence and Rome to Naples, and thence by the east coast by Ancona, Bologna, Venice, Milan, and back to Turin, at a cost for first class of £7, 17s., and second and third classes correspondingly low. This tour, for which sixty days are allowed, enables the traveller to stop at any important town on the lines; and all that is necessary is, at starting from each place, to get the next station at which he means to stop scored through at the railway window. To those whose time is limited, these circular tickets are valuable, and they are procurable with Italian paper, so that the benefit of exchange is got. Cook and Gaze issue tickets for the same circular tours, and probably at the same price, although I suppose they are generally in connection with tickets from London; but they have, I understand, to be paid for in English money. They possess the advantage, I believe, by no means to be undervalued, of having all directions printed in English as well as Italian. The railway companies issue their tickets at every important town on the line of route to be travelled.

Slade, ‘I’ve been to the Certosa’ 27/09/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s sixth poetical epistle: Florence, 28 February 1908

I’ve been to the Certosa. On a mount

The Abbey perches amid cypress trees

Slim-shaped as needles set the wrong end up

To spear the cloud-wrack that goes drifting by.

A white-robed friar with a shining pate

Close-shaven, for a fee will pilot you,

And speak in slow French in your ear’s unused

To bear the torrent of Italian.

They’ve Brunelleschi cloisters, panels wrought

By Andrea della Robbia in his prime;

And one pale slab shows Michael’s prentice hand

At work upon the mitre of a priest

In death’s last sleep recumbent All around

The mountains rise like billows; and, from thence,

Far belfries peer like sunken masts at sea

And toll the hour to shepherds. The warm air

Has more of languor than your Scotch hills know

Besieged by dark battalions of tall pines

Whose vanguard’s lost in cloud like battlesmoke

About their hidden summits. Here the vines

And olives fledge the hillsides in long files

To the remotest vistas of the south;

And northward past Galuzzo where the line

Curves into Gelsomino – such a sight!

On this same highway you may pass to Rome

By gaunt Siena and a hundred hills

Still bearing on their breasts the unhealing scars

Of that inhuman tempest in whose broils

Proud Florence battened on her weaker peers

It was a grey day when I went. The wind

Snatched up the clouds and would not let them pause

To comfort the dry vales; in sudden puffs

It smote the roadway dust into a steam

Like water on red embers loth to die.

About the Abbey’s base there ran a brook

In merry ripples that the sun made dance

Thro’ slits in the grey cloud. A gipsy camp

With three rude shanties set on aching wheels

Was pitched beside it; and about the fire

Two boys, a monkey, and a shaggy mule

Tied by his fetlock to a stump of wood

A picture ready for the hand of Claude.

From Christian World to Pagan’s but a span

In that long bridge that links eternal time.

I’ve been to the museum where a store

Of shattered remnants from Etruria

Crowd the low rooms; above Egyptian runes

Press close on antique vases, urns, and rings,

And Greek and Roman bronzes turned to green;

Helmets and armour from the loot of Kings

Once crowned in cities now depopulate;

Rams’ heads with hollow eyes, and mouths agape;

A war-steed’s head and neck all creased to show

The bridle’s sudden tension in the mouth.

The stress upon the haunches, and the snort

That spread his eager nostrils gaping wide;

Blurred hand-mirrors that brightly once gave back

The proud glance of some beauty in her prime;

Snapped spears, cracked bucklers, all things that attest

Dead valour, futile beauty, fill the mind

With dust of chariots and the shout of men

Defiant on the far dim verge of time.

Well, well, I fall to ranting. To be brief

For all these marvels – for the owls, storks, bulls,

And long-horned antelopes that haunted once

The reedy waters of old Father Nile,

I care but little – more remote to me

Than the Chimera whose long tail becomes

A serpent self-devouring at the tip.

Two things I treasured; one, a weeping girl

And one, a scornful peasant gazing back.

I chose, in fancy, to connect the two

And call the girl abandoned, whence there came

The three-versed poem that I here append.

Sung to a reed-pipe when the world was younger.

O! lover passing in the night

Beneath my window, hear my cry!

I cannot see the lantern’s light

For bitter tears fast flowing by

O! help me, help me ere I die.

By day thou reapest in the field

My dear brown god amid the grain;

And I by night to thee would yield

This virgin body without stain.

Ah me! Ah me! the bitter pain!

Come to me ere the harvest goes,

Ere all the hot sun’s golden shine

Suck dry the full heart of the rose,

Ere all my sweetness turn to brine.

Ah! lover dear for whom I pine!

I’m well and working hard, but I can give

No details of my painting, for, alas!

I find my rhymed lament has filled the quire.