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Florence from on high, c. 1850 12/03/2011

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c. 1850

Beautiful Florence ! That is the characteristic epithet by which this capital is always to be described. Seen from a neighboring height, such, for instance, as that of the Convent of San Miniato, or Fiesole, and it must be hard to believe that any vision more lovely could meet the eye, though one should ascend in succession every hill-top in Europe. Directly beneath the convent, encircled by her lofty walls, stands the beautiful capital, adorned as a bride; her jewelry, the Cathedral with its clustering domes, the central one almost as large as that of St. Peter’s – Giotto’s lofty Campanile, with its slender proportions and queenly elegance of form – the grotesque forms of the tower of the Old Palace, with its  embattled walls – the Baptistery, whose gates of sculptured bronze have obtained such celebrity – the Medicean Chapel, whose interior dazzles the eye with its polished marbles, precious stones and painted ceilings – these, together with the lofty roofs with their massive cornices of the Ricardi and Strozzi Palaces, constrain one to cry out as he gazes, Beautiful Florence! Then, the eye leaving the towers and domes of the city falls upon the Arno, which, dividing unequally the capital, and crossing the loveliest plains in the world, winds away among the hills, and enters the Mediterranean vmder the walls of Pisa. When the river by a sudden turn among the mountains has hidden itself from sight, the spectator rests his eye, and rests it indeed, on the broad fields of the richest husbandry imaginable, which stretch from the walls of the city twenty miles towards the west, an absolute plain, to where it meets the roots of the Apennines, and plain, mountain, and cloud, in the purple haze of an Italian sky, are lost in one indistinguishable confusion of colors and forms. No one can even faintly guess what the beauty of a plain is, till he sees this of Florence under the glowing light of a summer’s sunset, the surface of the plain here and there broken by the outline of castle or church, village or villa, by the tapering cypress with its black foliage, or by the Italian pine with its spreading umbrella top, the most picturesque of trees, and which lends its grace to so many of the landscapes of Claude Lorraine.

As soon as the observer can bear to withdraw his eyes from scenes like these, he raises them to the surrounding hills, which, as if for a wall of shelter and defence, surround the city on every side, save the single point where the Arno penetrates the vast mountain embankment to join the sea. These hills are not marked by any of the very picturesque forms, which are to be noticed among so many of the mountains of Italy, but, rather, by those graceful curves and sweeps, those indescribable beauties of long undulating lines, which, like so many other objects in that remarkable region, cause the traveller again and again to exclaim as he surveys them, ‘How Beautiful!’ They are the delectable mountains of Bunyan: and ought to be residences of blessed spirits. Gentlemen’s country-seats, the villas and palaces of princes, ruins of past ages, old convents and old castles, farm-houses with their long lines of out-buildings, villages –  these, all interspersed with groves of the pine and the olive, creep up the sides of the hills, or crown the lower summits, and guide the imagination to spots of loveliness such as Dante’s Beatrice might have dwelt in, or that circle of beauty where Boccacio’s tales were rehearsed; spots of loveliness that perfectly enchant the traveller, and half persuade him that his senses have been imposed upon by some theatrical trick. When I say that the whole outward aspect of Florence is so beautiful, the city and all its environs, almost especially its environs, the only epithet is applied to it by which it can be truly characterized – and in this I believe all would agree. There are other cities, the effect of which strikes deeper, and whose monuments are far more interesting, such as Rome; and, for magnificence and variety of scenery, Naples is unrivalled. All other places must strike one as flat and prosaic by the side of that imperial capital –  but, for beauty, there is nothing like Florence. And not only beauty, but extreme beauty – the beauty of a belle, of a belle in high dress – whose beauty is universally acknowledged, and universally worshipped.

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