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Birds and Easter 22/09/2011

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c. 1910

In the Val d’Arno birds certainly play their part in the great spring festival. On Easter Monday at Signa little children of two and three years old ride into Church on the asses that bear the Easter offerings of oil to the Pievano. A small finch is put into the last child’s hand, and presently flies free to escape by the Church door. Its flight is closely watched, for it is believed to carry the fortune of the season and year to the person or the house on which it first alights. At Florence on Easter Saturday, the messenger that travels along the wire out of the Cathedral door to the car is still called the colombia. Once it must have been shaped as a dove. Earlier still, as at Rome in 1493, a living pigeon was probably used; and even yet, as at Signa, this flight is auspicious, and is watched to read the fortune of the year.

A Leisured Life 17/09/2011

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c. 1910 recalling the 1860s

Thanks to the Maquays, with whom I ‘banked’, in my small way, I was at once cheaply provided with a couple of rooms, at number 14 Lung’ Arno Accaiuoli, on the right bank of the river, well in view of the picturesque Ponte Vecchio, and whence I could also look up at San Miniato and Michelangelo’s Bella Villanella. Breakfasting in my little sitting-room, facing the morning sun, I lunched anywhere or nowhere, and dined at the Casino (or Club) dei Nobili in the Via Tornabuoni, to which I was admitted as a member. Some twelve or fourteen of us used to dine there every day, at a table d’hôte provided at five lire a head. One of the fourteen was Mr. Henry Labouchere, who, with myself, was the only other Englishman. The regular diners were Florentines. I soon discovered there was a good deal of gambling in the club; but in this I never shared, my taste for card-playing being slight, and my dislike of playing for money insurmountable.

To the professed idler – perhaps the French word flaneur is more expressive of the thing, since commoner inFrance than it was among Englishmen, in those days at least – such conditions as I have here described were singularly favourable. But life has always seemed to me far too serious for mere pleasurable diversion. For balls I cared but little, andFlorence was a very dancing place. But I went to a certain number of these entertainments, mainly because of those I met there, and whose youth and comeliness always delight the eye and feed the imagination.

I hired a riding-horse, but gave it up at the end of a month, finding the Cascine monotonous, and the suburbs ofFlorencesingularly unfavourable to horse exercise. The galleries and churches of the Fair City are in winter chilly and damp; but youth is heedless of discomfort it scarcely feels, and I spent much time within them.Vieusseux’s Library had, and still has, a European reputation, and in it I found an ample supply of books and English papers.

On a Portrait of Dante by Giotto by James Lowell 16/09/2011

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James Lowell (obit 1891) included this poem in his volume Miscellaneous Poems (1843).

Can this be thou who, lean and pale,
With such immitigable eye
Didst look upon those writhing souls in bale,
And note each vengeance, and pass by
Unmoved, save when thy heart by chance
Cast backward one forbidden glance,
And saw Francesca, with child’s glee,
Subdue and mount thy wild-horse knee
And with proud hands control its fiery prance?

With half-drooped lids, and smooth, round brow,
And eye remote, that only sees
Fair Beatrice’s spirit wandering now
In some sea-lulled Hesperides,
Thou movest through the jarring street,
Secluded from the noise of feet
By her gift-blossom in thy hand,
Thy branch of palm from Holy Land;
No trace is here of ruin’s fiery sleet.

Yet there is something round thy lips
That prophesies the coming doom,
The soft, gray herald-shadow ere the eclipse
Notches the perfect disk with gloom;
A something that would banish thee,
And thine untamed pursuer be,
From men and their unworthy fates,
Though Florence had not shut her gates,
And Grief had loosed her clutch and let thee free.

Ah! he who follows fearlessly
The beckonings of a poet-heart
Shall wander, and without the world’s decree,
A banished man in field and mart;
Harder than Florence walls the bar
Which with deaf sternness holds him far
From home and friends, till death’s release,
And makes his only prayer for peace,
Like thine, scarred veteran of a lifelong war!

The Giostre and the Etruscans 14/09/2011

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c. 1910

The giostre, still played by the peasants in remote villages of the Apennines, carry on the traditions of the ‘hister’ who brought the dramatic art to Rome and who we are told recited to the sound of a pipe. The giostra players declaim in a sort of Gregorian chant in a plaintive minor key, accompanied by a pipe or little fiddle. The subjects of these giostre are sometimes Bible stories, Joseph and his brethren or the story of David, but there are also some mythical legends that I have not been able to identify. They differ from the regular miracle plays, in that I could not hear that they ever represented the gospel narrative. The words would have to be taken down on the spot, as they have neither books nor MSS., and when asked say they learnt them in the winter evenings, from the old men and women, who all knew them. The public performances of these giostre have been for the most part discontinued, but I was present at the resuscitation of one after fifty years neglect, in the Pistoiese Apennines, where it was played out of doors, at the village festas of the region. It was entirely due to the enterprise of one old peasant, who had acted in his youth and drilled the new generation. When I asked him about the written text of the plays, he said he had never seen them nor anyone else in those parts, but that they were kept at Volterra, This traditional connection of Volterra, the Etruscan capital of the district, with the giostre seemed to me strange and perhaps significant.

Alma Mater by Amy Levy 13/09/2011

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‘Alma Mater’ appeared in A London Plane-Tree And Other Verse in 1889 the year of her suicide. Her Alma Mater is Cambridge where she studied at Newnham College.

Today in Florence all the air

Is soft with spring, with sunlight fair;

In the tall street gay folks are met;

Duomo and Tower gleam overhead,

Like jewels in the city set,

Fair-hued and many-faceted.

Against the old grey stones are piled

February violets, pale and sweet,

Whose scent of earth in woodland wild

Is wafted up and down the street.

The city’s heart is glad; my own

Sits lightly on its bosom’s throne.

Why is it that I see to-day,

Imaged as clear as in a dream,

A little city far away,

A churlish sky, a sluggish stream,

Tall clustering trees and gardens fair,

Dark birds that circle in the air,

Grey towers and fanes; on either hand,

Stretches of wind-swept meadow-land?

Oh, who can sound the human breast?

And this strange truth must be confessed;

That city do I love the best

Wherein my heart was heaviest.

A Visit to Three Monasteries 07/09/2011

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c. 1910 recalling the 1860s

It was when the magical change from Winter to Spring had stolen over Tuscany that I paid my first visit, with two companions, to Vallombrosa, Camaldoli, and La Vernia, then all of them convents or, as we say, monasteries. Trollope was too busy completing his History of the Commonwealth of Florence to be of the party; nor was it till two years later that I repeated the visit, with him for guide. But he already knew every inch of the journey, and put us in the way of making it with convenience and pleasure. The railway took us but a very short distance out of Florence. Then our road lay through Compiobbi and Pelago, driving in a country fagherino from the first to the second, and entrusting ourselves to Antonio, popularly surnamed ‘da Pelago’, who had been apprised by Trollope of the intended arrival of his friends. Punctually awaiting us was the said Antonio, with likely-looking mules, bridled and saddled for the excursion.

The road to Vallombrosa, even then, though stony and devious, was fairly good according to Italian standards; and when, about Ave Maria, we approached the Convent, the Prior and his monastic companions standing in the gateway gave the impression of refined monastic life. The hospitable tones in which we were welcomed, our plain but carefully served supper, and our sleep suggesting beds in clean simple cells, confirmed that first impression.

Nothing on the following morning disturbed or modified it; and the climate, when we were taken to see some of the timber of biggest girth in the surrounding woods, felt little less genial than we had left inFlorence. The thoughts and feelings I then experienced made me for a while a silent companion, after we had bidden our kindly monastic hosts farewell, and prayed them to accept a slight return for their gentle hospitality.

Our progress to the Convent of Camaldoli throughout the afternoon and early evening was of a rougher and wilder sort. Road, in the ordinary signification of the word, there was none. But Antonio knew every turn and winding of the way, walking by or behind us, quite unwearied, but sometimes, where the path was steepest and stoniest, availing himself of a grasp of the tail of one or other of the mules. Camaldoli lay secluded amid wilder and more picturesque surroundings than Vallombrosa, the white garb of its serious occupants lending it, however, a refined aspect. But we could see that there was still a covering of snow at no great elevation above it; and the air had in it what Shakespeare calls an eager and a nipping feeling.

Surmising in us more Capuan sensitiveness than they themselves suffered from, or at least were allowed to humour, our hosts at once made a goodly fire in the guests’ room of huge well-dried boughs, four or five feet in length, that served for a sort of fender-hassock, and which we pushed in from where they converged on the hearth. by which in a short time we were thoroughly well roasted. Small mountain river trout, faggioli, or beans, and a dish of admirably cooked macheroni composed a really luxurious supper.

The Prior, who sat by us while we thus regaled ourselves, plied us with questions about the world without, and was most anxious to know how fared their good friend, Trollope. We were equally curious about Camaldolese life, and listened with especial interest to his description of the Sacro Eremo, higher still and deeper in the forest than the Convent itself, and whither periodically a certain number of monks in rotation betook themselves for a more penitential period. There the snow lies thick most of the year; and they had to sweep a path for themselves in the middle of the night in order to reach the chapel firom their cells. Hearing of these nocturnal austerities, we were not wishful to partake of them at the Sacro Eremo, but in the Convent Church at three in the morning, at which hour, we were assured, Matins were recited. The Prior urged that it would break in rudely on our slumbers. But we were importunate, and a promise was given that we should be roused at the hour named. Awaking the next morning at about seven, we were disappointed at not having been disturbed, but the Prior said he had taken compassion on our lay and mundane habits. Inwardly we suspected that this fatherly compassion had been extended to the whole community.

After an ample supply of black coffee and black bread, we mounted our mules to ascend to the Sacro Eremo. Deeper and deeper got the snow, but, despite the admonishing voice of Antonio, we pushed on, and suddenly found our mules imbedded to the saddle girths. Then, for the first time, Antonio lost his head, betaking himself to those semi-blasphemous invocations to all the saints and devils that come so promptly to Italian lips in moments of exasperation. At last, as though nothing else was of any avail, he bent down, struck the snow with the back of his hand, exclaiming, ‘Corpo di Giuda!’ (‘Body of Judas’).

Watching the characteristic performance from the safe and comfortable elevation of my saddle, I meditated on the persistency of Pagan tradition in Italy, and bethought me of the line in Virgil: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo. (‘Since Heaven will not listen to my prayers, I will appeal to nether Hell’). I need scarcely say that, encouraged by words and copious offers of assistance, Antonio succeeded in wheeling the mules round, and setting their noses downhill, advance to the Eremo being perforce abandoned. For a time he remained absolutely silent as we descended to the Convent. But at last he heaved a deep sigh, and exclaimed, ‘Ahime! Ho perduto tutta la mia devozione’. My companions wondered what he meant. My Roman Catholic training came to their assistance, and I explained to them that probably he had comped at Easter with the obligation of getting ‘absolved’ from his sins at that period, and had been in a satisfactory spiritual state ever since, but that, having now indulged in such shocking language, he had ‘perduto tutta la sua devozione’; in other words, had now forfeited the state of grace he was in, and would have to try to get it back all over again.

Noonsaw us on our way to La Vernia, the famous Franciscan Convent, familiar to the readers of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Our progress was up a gradual pathless ascent; but I believe Antonio could have traversed it in the dark without missing his way. After several hours of delightful zigzagging at a foot’s pace, we at length came in sight of the Monastery, impressed on the eye for life for any who has so approached it. Even Franciscan Convents vary in uncomeliness, those in the valley succumbing to civilizing influences more than those on the heights. La Vernia was in the latter category; and the severest laws of the saintly preacher of poverty were, we soon perceived, in full operation. That was just what we wanted. The only approach to comfort was the cordiality of the reception we met with; but in one’s young days what is material comfort in comparison with new and striking experiences?

Pious ignorance, and what some people would call gross superstition, were the dominant notes in the conversation of these brown-frocked, bare-footed Frati. They allowed that they often in severe Winter weather were hard pressed for food, but they had never experienced what once befell some of their predecessors, tanti anni fa, ever so many years ago, when the Brothers were menaced with absolute extinction by famine. Dragging themselves and each other into the chapel of the Convent, they prayed that Heaven might take compassion on them. Suddenly they heard the great bell at the gateway ring, and thither the least weak of the community tottered. All around, the snow lay thick as ever; but lo! at the gate was a huge basket of bread and food of other kinds. Need I add that the traditional tale ended with the statement, evidently made in perfect good faith, that the Madonna had interceded for them, and Gesu Chisto had sent this relief.

‘Now,’ I said to my companions, ‘is our chance of hearing Matins at three in the morning.’ The request that we might be roused at that hour was accepted as the most natural thing in the world; and, sure enough, when I was lapped deep in slumber on the hardest of beds, I felt a cold hand on my shoulder, shuffled on my clothes, and was shown, by the light of a dim hand-lamp of the old Etruscan pattern, into the long corridor. I found my travelling companions coming halfawake out of their cells, and the Franciscan monks and lay-brothers moving slowly, two by two, and chanting or droning a psalm, towards the underground chapel of which they had told me. Only one large tall candle lighted the way, but I could both see and feel that we were descending. Passing into the chapel having all the dimensions of a church, the Brothers prostrated themselves for a time before the high altar, in silence; then rising, and forming themselves again into processional order, they moved towards the closed doors at the other end facing the sanctuary. Then came the sound of the opening and pushing back of heavy doors on stiff hinges, and we were in the full moonlight, with the undulating line of theApennines clear in the distance.

Turning sharply to the right, we were again under cover till we reached the real underground chapel. I thought I could see a large Luca della Robbia over the Altar, which was verified by the next day’s daylight, as the finest one in the world, an almost life-size representation of the Crucifixion. After the intoning of the Miserere, the monks formed afresh, and led the way back to the corridor, where each of them silently entered his own cell. We did the same, enchanted, in the literal sense of the word, by what we had seen and heard, but soon plunged again into the refreshing slumbers of youth.

Massa Marittima, 1910 07/09/2011

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1900-1920

This town (about one and a half hours by train from Follonica, on the line between Pisa and Grosseto) has a magnificent situation on a rocky hill over 1300 feet in height, surrounded on the north and west by densely wooded heights. To the east and south lies the level stretch of Maremma, with the hills of Gavorrano and Scarlino, and beyond, the Gulf of Follonica and the island of Elba. Above the town is a vast stretch of open down which falls away to the south in precipitous rocks covered with a luxurious growth of shrubs and scented herbs. The picturesque towers and buildings of the town, the rich undergrowth, far-extending woods, and the distant view of plain, sea, and island, make this one of the most charming places in Tuscany. In the immediate neighbourhood are mines of copper, alum, lignite and lead.

Lucentio’s Education in Florence 06/09/2011

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Taming of the Shrew, I, I: Lucentio speaks

Tranio, since for the great desire I had
To see fair Padua, nursery of arts,
I am arriv’d for fruitful Lombardy,
The pleasant garden of great Italy,
And by my father’s love and leave am arm’d
With his good will and thy good company,
My trusty servant well approv’d in all,
Here let us breathe, and haply institute
A course of learning and ingenious studies.
Pisa, renowned for grave citizens,
Gave me my being and my father first,
A merchant of great traffic through the world,
Vincentio, come of the Bentivolii;
Vincentio’s son, brought up in Florence
It shall become to serve all hopes conceiv’d,
To deck his fortune with his virtuous deeds.
And therefore, Tranio, for the time I study,
Virtue and that part of philosophy
Will I apply that treats of happiness
By virtue specially to be achiev’d.
Tell me thy mind; for I have Pisa left
And am to Padua come as he that leaves
A shallow plash to plunge him in the deep,
And with satiety seeks to quench his thirst.

Fregato at Fiesole 25/08/2011

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c. 1880

In Italy the cab fares are exceedingly moderate. For instance, at Genoa, Florence, and Rome, the drive per course is only 80 centessimi (8d.). At Rome, for every person beyond two, 20 centimes (2d.) additional is payable. The charge per hour is 1.50. At Naples, fares are even more moderate. The course, according to Baedeker, is 60 centimes per hour, 1.40 the first hour and 50 centimes every half-hour after; but we found the actual tariff was slightly more.

One requires to be careful, especially in Italy, about driving per hour in a town, not to go unnecessarily beyond its bounds, as when this is done the tariff is no longer binding, and the fare may be completely at the mercy of the driver. Thus, at Florence, we had on one occasion taken a carriage by the hour, and after driving about for some time, went to Fiesole, which lies beyond the bounds. When we came to settle with our driver, he charged us three or four francs additional on this account. At Naples, where one may very easily exceed the bounds, I was amused at the pertinacity of a driver in suggesting to go to places just beyond the city; but as I had made myself acquainted with its limits, and had no wish at that time to go to the places he named, I declined. The way to adopt when designing to go beyond the bounds is, as we arranged always at Rome, to make an express bargain that the charge by time should cover wherever we went.

Ascencion Day and the Grilli 25/08/2011

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c. 1910

Ascencion Day is observed at Florence in a way to make it one of the most characteristic feasts in tlie Calendar of the city. At dawn, the people stream out in thousands to the Cascine, spending the day till noon in the open grass-spaces, and under the trees, of that public park. While this place was still the dairy farm of the Grand Dukes, custom prescribed that the day should begin with a drink of warm milk taken at the farm. The people then passed on, as they still do, to a rendezvous at the ancient oak-tree of the adjoining park, whence they scattered again in groups to catch the grilli, the black field-crickets, that form, even to-day, the chief object of this outing. Their prey caught and caged, the people dine; some eating on the grass the provisions they have brought; others seeking the rustic restaurants set out beneath the trees. At midday the park is empty again; the people have gone home with their grilli – caught or bought – in the little cages of buckwheat stem that serve to contain them. The cages are hung in the houses, for the Florentines think the cricket’s song brings luck to the home; especially if the grilli can be kept alive and vocal till the day of Corpus Christi. It is to be feared that few survive as long! Just this survival, however, must be insisted on; for it shows clearly what Florence has in mind when the grilli are caught. When Easter falls late – towards the 25th of April – Corpus Domini as Italy calls the further feast, tends to coincide with the summer solstice. Now the song of the field-cricket, opening feebly about the beginning of May, reaches its height only at midsummer, to die away about the 15th of July. Thus, when Ascension-day falls on April 30th there are no singing-crickets; and evidently the solstice is the date at which any observance connected with this insect should properly fall. With this reference to the solstice ancient authority fully agrees. Pliny, who mentions how the giylliis was caught in his time with a hair holding an ant as bait, quotes Nigidius for the great importance attached to the field-cricket in the doctrine of the Magi. It burrows in the earth, he says, walks backwards, and sings by night; such are the reasons he offers for the attention it attracted. Now the same backward movement was noticed in the scarabaus of the Nile and in the crab. Egypt made the scarabaus a symbol of the sun, and the world saw the crab in that sign of the Zodiac which the sun entered at midsummer. In Cancer, the sun began his annual retreat; hence a perceived relation between this solstice and all backward-moving animals. Among such then the grillo held a place of honour, and belonged, like them, to the same great moment in the year; gathering all the fancies with which the solstice was associated.